If there’s something I love more than I most normal people, it’s food anthropology. I love learning about the origins of food, the traditions behind it, and the authenticity tied to it. That being said, I took a course a few years ago titled “Food for Thought” that explored the changes in Italian food through its history and culture, and it wound up being one of the most captivating classes I’ve ever been a part of.
One of our assignments was an ‘experiential learning’ piece – one which required us to immerse ourselves in Italian culture through seeing a show, watching a movie, or following a recipe. Good luck cracking the code in guessing which I decided to do.
So, I decided to document my first go-around in making the one, the only, Tiramisu.
*I did my best to channel the story-telling Jeffrey Steingarten relays so well and tried to pair it with a David Foster Wallace-esque weaved narrative.*
Tiramisu, Italy’s most famous dessert, is nothing short of luxurious perfection. The name translates to “pick-me-up,” and that quite literally is exactly what the treat does. The layered dish includes a creamy filling, espresso, cocoa, and if that wasn’t enough to perk you up, the hint of liquor (or wine) will surely do the trick. The other, and quite romanticized version of the origin of the name, contests that since the dessert is so incredible, it makes the taster swoon and beckon to be picked up. Even if it was named ‘push-me-down,’ there’s no doubt that the masses would still fall in love with this dish.
Seeing tiramisu in Italian restaurants and with many variations makes one assume that Italians end their dinnertime meals with a generous helping of this treat, however, thats not the case. Fortunately for Italians’ waistlines and unfortunately for their taste buds, traditionally, a meal is often concluded with fresh fruit or light dessert. Indulgent cakes and pastries are saved for special occasions, and that’s precisely why the Italians outdid themselves with creating tiramisu. Since they don’t have it each day, they created an extraordinary dish to highlight the significance of the event being celebrated.
The layered beauty can be separate into the core components – ladyfingers, espresso, filling, and cocoa powder. The Savoidari ladyfingers serve as the foundation for the dessert, but not until they’re soaked in fresh espresso. Then, they’re topped with a delicate, yet pungent filling, as well as another layer of ladyfingers, and then garnished with shaved chocolate or cocoa powder.
As I got home for Thanksgiving break and mentioned to my parents my plan to make tiramisu, their faces lit up. They not so subtly encouraged me to make the dish the same day I told them about it, so I took a stroll to the Italian food aisle of my local Wegmans Supermarket. To my surprise, the cookies weren’t in the International Food section, so after hunting down not one, but two employees, I found them tucked alongside the aisle of packaged Oreos and Pepperidge Farms cookies. Next, I made my way to the specialty cheeses, where the fresh balls of mozzarella were hard to resist, so naturally I let go of my willpower and dropped a few in my cart to make some Margherita pizza with later on. Oddly enough, there was only one brand of mascarpone cheese, so I picked up, along with eggs and heavy cream, and drove home as quickly as possible.
I lined up all the ingredients on the counter and went to work. Since the recipe only calls for egg yolks, I had a fun time separating them from the whites- my 13 year old brother saw a video on an easy way to separate eggs and shared his tip with me (Crack an egg into a bowl and use an empty water bottle to suction the yolk out of the white – works like a charm. Weird.) I placed the yolks, along with sugar and a pinch of salt, in a bowl that sat on a pot of simmering water and began to whisk away. Two minutes into it, I realized I had completely forgotten to add the coffee liquor, which apparently we had run out of at home a few weeks beforehand. Before I set into a worried panic, my dad suggested an alternate: Cognac. Not just any Cognac, but some of the brandy we brought home from our trip to Armenia this summer. I thought, “Why not?” I added the caramel colored liquid and continued whisking for what seemed like eternity, but I was very patient in making sure that the mixture reached a consistency where it was thick enough to leave a ribbon on the surface when I lifted the whisk. At this point I’ve convinced myself that whisking is an acceptable alternate to an arm workout. It has to be.
While this mixture cooled, I whipped the mascarpone cheese and heavy cream together using a stand mixer until it had stiff peaks that stood on their own, like soft little white mountains.From there, I folded the whipped mixture into the boozy egg yolks where it transformed into a golden, luscious cream. Granted, this is an incredibly authentic Italian dessert, however, being the person I am, I put a bit of an Armenian flair to the dish – as though the brandy wasn’t enough.
The recipe I used called for hot espresso, so I used two cups of strong, traditional Armenian coffee, called soorj, which can arguably be said to be far stronger than espresso. The small amount of water is heated in a specific Armenian pot called a jezve with a heaping tablespoon of freshly ground coffee and makes for a bold and full-bodied cup of caffeinated goodness. One by one, I dip the ladyfingers into the hot coffee, making sure to soak them entirely before using them to line the pan. If you were like me and incredibly curious as to who thought to name a sugary cookie after a woman’s extremity, don’t worry. As it turns out, they were invented in the court of the Duchy of Savoy in the 15th century as a welcoming to the King of France, and they were named after their resemblance to fingers after being designated the “official court biscuit.”
(You are welcome.)
Anyway, after completing the first layer of soaked cookies, I spooned the mascarpone mixture on top, generously, of course, and dusted the top with cocoa powder. I repeated the dipped ladyfingers for the second layer, but then I filled a piping bag with the remaining cream and decoratively piped the top before adding a finishing sprinkle of cocoa powder.
Some common thoughts I had while making this include, but are not limited to,
“Why would you name a cookie a ‘ladyfinger?’ Who thought that was a good idea?”
“Dad, I think we added too much brandy.”
“Can I eat this cream with a spoon? Will anyone notice?”
“Dad, I can smell the booze in this.”
and of course, “8 hours?? I have to wait 8 hours after all of this???”
A long 8 hours later, I made a few more cups of coffee for myself and my parents, grabbed a knife, and began teetering with the thought of what size piece is considered ‘acceptable’ – although I doubt the generous helpings I plated for us were even near that category.
Now, a confession.
I’ve only had a bite of tiramisu before this point in my life, and I was far too young to appreciate it. This time was completely different. With my first forkful, I was surprised with how light the sweet treat actually was. I anticipated a heavy bite because of the richness of the cream and hardness of the cookies when I first began – I didn’t think that the coffee would soften the ladyfingers in a way that didn’t make them soggy, but instead, they were bouncy and spongey and the cream was just as scrumptious. The bitterness of the coffee was cancelled out by the sweet, deep tone of the cream, and then the hints of cocoa powder sprinkled into each bite brought it all together. I could have easily made my way through the entire dish, but I maintained a *shred* of self control and decided to bring it to Thanksgiving dinner the follow day (where I fell asleep in my aunt’s living room before dessert and came back to the dinner table to see an empty pan, used dessert plates, and very happy relatives).
Through making this dessert, I not only learned about the history tied to this Italian classic, but I gained a deep appreciation for those who make it. The process, although very worthwhile in the end, requires a great deal of attention and a considerable amount of time. It’d be easy to swap things out – like use different cookies or day old coffee, omit the alcohol, or swap cream cheese for mascarpone – but changing one of these elements would completely change the integrity of a dish that is held in high regard and with such pride within the Italian community. After making my first Italian dessert, I cannoli imagine how tasty the rest must be. I guess I’ll have to make a few more, to find out…for research purposes, of course.