When in Rome last summer, my friend Ryan and I decided to tackle one of the most famous and undoubtedly one of the most elegant desserts Italy’s capital has to offer: tiramisù. Translated from the Italian phrase “pick me up,” this creamy concoction of layered lady fingers boasts two collegiate mainstays all in one shot: espresso and alcohol. While the former adds that delightfully bitter finish for which the dessert is so famous, the latter — dry marsala wine — plays a subtle second fiddle masterfully masked in the zabaglione, an egg custard that is blended with fresh whipped cream and smooth mascarpone cheese to create tiramisù’s signature blend of sweet and tang.
Or so it should be.
Tiramisù is not a difficult dessert to make if you’ve time and patience to spare, but it does demand that you pay attention to what you’re doing. Truly, this can be said of all cooking, but the art of pastry is practically scientific in its need for accuracy in measurement. One wrong move and the entire taste, texture and consistency of your would-be masterpiece is compromised. While I often advocate “cooking on instinct,” here I faithfully quote the 2007 blockbuster Ratatouille: “FOLLOW THE RECIPE.”
This advice is straightforward enough, provided your recipe is straightforward enough. Unfortunately for Ryan and me, the tiramisù recipe we followed was woefully inaccurate in one crucial detail: the amount of dry marsala wine. The recipe, taken from a tome on the culinary culture of Italy, specified that we ought to use either ¾ of a cup or 400 milliliters of wine; however, as a philosophy of mathematics major, Ryan quickly figured out that 400 milliliters is nowhere near ¾ of a cup. It’s a lot closer to two cups. Of wine. And while this seemed a little excessive, we decided to go with it. Hey, we were in Italy! Might as well live it up, right?
After about an hour of beating and stirring, our beautiful, pale yellow zabaglione looked as smooth as ice and tasted as alcoholic as a vodka tonic. Oh, we’d done everything else right; any blue-blooded Roman observer would concur. We just added enough booze to turn a serving of our tiramisù into a classy cocktail.
Don’t get me wrong. The use of alcohol is crucial to the outcome of the dish and our “loaded” tiramisù still tasted delicious in its own right. But there is a time and place for spirits in the kitchen, and drowning your tiramisù in marsala wine should be avoided. There are plenty of flavors and textures at play in this heavenly trifle, and you don’t want to outshine them with a taste that many Yalies are all-too-familiar with, especially on Friday nights in certain houses that may or may not bear Greek names.
And so I present my take on tiramisù: light on the liquor at no cost to tradition or taste. However, if this particular culinary mishap has taught me anything (and nearly all of them do), it is that tiramisù could easily be translated into a perfectly respectable mixed drink. But I’ll leave that to your imagination.