An Ode to Tiramisu

Oh, tiramisu, how we do love thee.  You have stood the test of time and poorly-executed imitations and maybe you were a bit over-done back in the 80’s and 90’s, but your deliciousness has prevailed. And because you're good, so very good, you have withstood the slander and soldiered on with your head held high, and this is exactly what makes you so endearing.  Because done right, you are an eternally scrumptious dessert that succumbs to neither snobbery or ineptitude.  Amen.

Yes, I do believe that tiramisu has had to endure its share of disrespect, but I don’t think the problem ever was that people actually became bored with it, but more that shortcuts were being taken and tiramisu derivitives were cropping up that began to less and less resemble the original. It's true that it does take a bit of time to make, but few things are as worth the effort as a tiramisu well made.  And I’ll admit that even a mediocre tiramisu can still be pretty delicious. 

But the tiramisu that we’re talking about today is anything but mediocre.  I’ve been making this particular one for about 20 years, after watching a man make his Italian aunt’s revered recipe on an early Food Network show.  We fell in love and never looked back.

As I said, it’s not a dish that you throw together at a moment’s notice or half hour before dinner.  But this is actually a good thing because it’s best made a day ahead and allowed to sit in the fridge and let the flavors of cream and chocolate and coffee and rum all hang out and get to know each other and create something quite delicious and extraordinary.

Hopefully, your grocery store or Italian market will supply you with the savoiardi (Italian lady fingers), which are crispy finger-shaped cookies that are sometimes hard to find.  I bought mine at Whole Foods, but not long ago I wasn’t able to get out to Whole Foods and our local market only had some frozen American-type lady fingers that were smaller and softer.  I went ahead and bought them, thawed them out and placed them on a baking sheet in a low oven (about 200 degrees) for about 20 minutes.  As they cooled, they crisped up and ended up working really great.  So if that’s all you can find, no worries.  

And although it takes a little time to make tiramisu, there’s no baking involved… it’s mostly a matter of mixing and assemblage and none of it is difficult.  Firstly, we’re going to combine some espresso coffee, cream and sugar together and set it aside.

Nextly, we’re going to make our luscious custard filling by whisking some eggs and sugar over boiling water until slightly thickened. 

After we cool it down, we’re going to add the mascarpone cheese and a goodly amount of dark rum.  Some people add brandy, but rum’s the way to go here.

Now we’re ready for the assemblage part… 

Start dunking your crisp ladyfingers briefly (count to 3) in the coffee mixture and layer them in the bottom of your baking dish.

Once you have the bottom of the dish covered, spread half of the mascarpone custard over the soaked ladyfingers.  

Make another layer of dunked ladyfingers on top of that

And then spread the rest of the custard over the whole thing.

Refrigerate for a couple of hours to set it up and then mix together the cocoa and powdered sugar and sift that over the top of the custard.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for another 2 hours or preferably overnight.  Before serving, I like to sift a little more of the cocoa powder mixture over the top.

Now then just stand back cuz this is some powerful good stuff.  I’m not even kidding. 

Each bite is creamy and luscious with just the right notes of coffee, chocolate and, of course, rum.  Tiramisu passé?  I think not.  Here’s the recipe…


Click here for a printable recipe

As I mentioned in the blog post, finding savoiardi cookies can be challenging.  If your store doesn't carry them and you don't have access to an Italian grocery store (I get mine at Whole Foods), some stores carry frozen lady fingers that are smaller and softer.  I've had to buy those before, but simply thaw them out and place them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 degrees) for about 15 or 20 minutes.  You can just turn off the oven and let them sit in there and they will crisp up.  They will work just fine.  A word of caution... the secret to a great tiramisu is to not-over-soak the cookies as it will end up soggy and un-yummy.  But do not under-soak them either or it will turn out on the dry side.  A 3-second dunk seems to be about right.

1 1/3 cups sugar (divided)

6 large eggs

1 1/2 pounds mascarpone cheese (3 8-oz tubs)

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup instant espresso powder

3/4 cup chilled whipping cream

5 tablespoons rum

44 (about) crisp savoiardi or Italian ladyfinger cookies (from two 7-ounce packages)

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 

1/4 cup powdered sugar

Set mascarpone out to come to room temperature.  Whisk until smooth.

Bring 1 1/2 cups of water to simmer in a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup of the sugar and the espresso powder; whisk until sugar dissolves. Mix in the cream and refrigerate until cold. (alternately, you can use 1 ½ cups of brewed espresso instead of the water and espresso powder).

Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. Whisk the eggs and 1/3 cup sugar in medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk constantly for about 10 minutes or until the mixture just begins to thicken. Then set the custard over the bowl of ice water and whisk until cool.  Remove the bowl from the ice water, mix in the rum, and fold in the mascarpone cheese.  Set aside.

Submerge 3 cookies in the chilled espresso-cream mixture for 5 seconds. Place the cookies on the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking dish or trifle bowl. Working in batches, repeat with enough remaining cookies to just cover the bottom of the dish. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over cookies. Repeat soaking process with remaining cookies, placing them in single layer atop the mascarpone mixture. Spread the remaining mascarpone mixture over the cookies and refrigerate until set, about 2 hours. 

Whisk the cocoa and powdered sugar together in small bowl to blend. Sift the sweetened cocoa over the top of the dessert.  Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight.  (I like to sift a little more of the cocoa and powdered sugar mixture over the top just before serving).

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