When I was a naive, guileless bambino, I somehow became convinced that I was Italian. Although my obsession with the Super Mario Brothers and “The Godfather” movies may have contributed slightly, this delusion was mostly based on an unmatched, undying, unappeasable love for Italian food. My parents, bemused by my insistence on this identity, played along by hastily substituting chow mein when I entreated for pasta. Though this tactic worked for a transient epoch, I soon had my first bite of tiramisu at a friend’s house, and consequently reached an edible metamorphosis. Momma Wu and Daddy Wu were forced to admit that tiramisu, an Italian dessert, had no other equal.
Watch a first-time tiramisu experience for fun sometime. Scarcely two bites in, the taster will cry out, mouth full of the custard cake, crumbs a-spewing, that his taste buds have grazed the realm of perfection — an ironic statement, because tiramisu means “pick-me-up”. Yet while people react to the dessert with universal ecstasy, its origins remain unclear and fiercely contested. First, some people suggest that tiramisu is a good ole traditional Italian dessert. But even the old-school camp, which sees tiramisu’s birth as a labor of love, is split. Some maintain that Venetian women of the Renaissance shared tiramisu with their men late at night, believing it would give them the energy to pull more vigorous… all-nighters during midterms. Those who say tiramisu originated in the First World War make the less lusty but more romantic claim that women gave their husbands tiramisu when they were being sent off to war. Either the bittersweet taste of the dessert would remind them of the complex feeling of love, or more practically, its high caffeine would give the men more energy to fight and return home safely. These amorous explanations contrast greatly with theories that tout tiramisu as a recent invention. While some say tiramisu is a way to salvage old cake and cold coffee, the owners of Le Beccherie, a restaurant in Treviso, claim that they conceived of the recipe in the ’70s as a variation of other layered cakes.
But just what goes into tiramisu? Apparently, heaven comes pretty easily; making tiramisu involves few ingredients and even fewer steps. The only problem is, there are about as many different ways to make tiramisu as there are stories about its origins. The following recipe is, unlike me, authentically Italian. I do not add egg whites, cream cheese or whipped cream to the mascarpone cheese; there is no sugar in the espresso; I use raw eggs because salmonella doesn’t scare me (you can make a hot sugar syrup to add to the eggs if you are concerned).
Tiramisu Fit for True Italians
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
16 oz. mascarpone cheese
1.5 cups brewed espresso, cooled
1/4 cup dark rum or brandy (I prefer Kahlua for extra sweetness and coffee flavor. You can add more or less liqueur depending on how bitter you want your tiramisu.)
24 ladyfingers (Known as “savoiardi” in Italian, these dry, finger-shaped cookies are available in most gourmet stores)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer with whisk attachment or brute strength and a fork, beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale, about 5 minutes.
2. Add mascarpone cheese and beat until smooth.
3. In a small shallow dish, add the espresso and rum.
4. Dip the ladyfingers very quickly (do not soak!) in the coffee-liqueur mixture.
5. Place ladyfingers side-by-side in an 8 by 8 inch baking dish, breaking them if necessary to cover the bottom.
6. Spread 1/2 of the mascarpone mixture evenly over the ladyfingers.
7. Arrange another layer of soaked ladyfingers and top with remaining mascarpone mixture.
8. Cover tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, up to 8 hours.
9. Before serving, sift cocoa powder on the top.
This recipe is supposed to serve 6, but if it is meant to feed Italians (like me), it will only serve 2 or 3.