One of the most famous and well-loved of all Italian desserts, tiramisù (meaning literally: "pick me up") is a descendant of the traditional English trifle. A trifle, which in Italy goes by the rather unappetizing name of zuppa inglese ("English soup"), is essentially layers of sherry-soaked sponge cake, custard sauce and fruit-flavored gelatin, all topped with whipped cream.
Though many variations exist, a classic tiramisù is layers of savoiardi biscuits (also known as ladyfingers or sponge fingers) dipped in espresso and layered with a mascarpone-and-egg cream and generous sprinklings of cocoa powder or grated dark chocolate. Even though it's rich, decadent and full of complex flavors, and makes an impressive finale to any meal, it's actually incredibly simple to make -- the no-cook, no-bake dessert of your dreams!
How exactly the zuppa inglese evolved into tiramisù is unclear, though it is a relatively recent creation.
The most widespread claim is that it was invented at the Le Beccherie restaurant in Treviso, in Northern Italy's Veneto region. Carlo Campeol, owner of Le Beccherie, has said that his mother Alba Campeol, together with pastry chef Loly Linguanotto, developed the recipe at the restaurant in 1971. It was allegedly inspired by the fact that, after the birth of her son, Alba's mother-in-law brought over an energy boost in the form of a zabaglione cream spiked with espresso.
Another story claims that tiramisù the was first served at the Alfredo El Toulà restaurant, also in Treviso, in the 1960s, but inspired by a pick-me-up created in the 1950s by women who worked in a casa chiuso (a.k.a. a bordello).
Carminantonio Iannaccone, meanwhile, claimed in 2007 that he had invented tiramisù and first served it in 1971 at his Piedigrotta restaurant -- also in Treviso. It seems odd, if he were truly the inventor, that he wouldn't have said anything about it or have been mentioned in connection with the dessert until the 2000s, but who knows. His version is more complex, involving a several-day process of making both zabaglione and pastry cream.
Whomever you choose to believe, the only thing we can be relatively sure of is that it was invented at a restaurant in Treviso sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s; there is no mention of it in any Italian cookbook until the early 1980s. That is unusual for an Italian dessert recipe, many of which date back to medieval times -- or even earlier -- and have been handed down through generations of families.
- 4 farm-fresh eggs, separated (NOTE: if you are concerned about the raw eggs in this recipe, you can 1) substitute them with 2 cups heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks, 2) substitute both the mascarpone and eggs with plain yogurt, or 3) substitute the eggs with zabaglione and mix the zabaglione with the mascarpone)
- 1/2 cup sugar (granulated)
- 1 cup fresh mascarpone cheese
- 2 cups strong espresso (at room temperature)
- 2 dozen (24) savoiardi biscuits or ladyfingers
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the yolks with a whisk or electric hand mixer, gradually adding the sugar, until the mixture is thick, fluffy, smooth and pale.
Gently fold the mascarpone into the yolks with a spatula and set aside.
In a clean, dry mixing bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff (but not dry) peaks.
Gently fold the beaten whites into the mascarpone-yolk mixture, one-half at a time, and set aside.
Pour the coffee into a wide, shallow bowl or dish and quickly dip several of the savoiardi into the coffee just long enough to moisten them, but not so long that they grow soggy and lose their shape. Arrange the biscuits in a single layer on a serving platter or in a baking dish.
Top the biscuits with a layer of the mascarpone cream, then dust evenly with some cocoa powder.
Repeat the layers until your ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of the mascarpone cream dusted with cocoa.
Refrigerate 2-3 hours or until well-chilled and firm.
Serve straight from the refrigerator; it's not safe to let this dish sit for a long time at room temperature due to the mascarpone and raw eggs.
Variations and optional additions:
- Substitute the cocoa powder with grated semisweet chocolate.
- Substitute the savoiardi biscuits with sponge cake, or slices of panettone or .
- Add 1 teaspoon of alcohol to the espresso before soaking the ladyfingers. Suggestions: Marsala wine, dark rum, port, madeira, cognac, brandy, or a flavored liqueur such as amaretto or nocino.
- Substitute zabaglione for the mascarpone cream.
- For a lighter version (also a good option if you are concerned about the safety of raw eggs), substitute the mascarpone and eggs with 4 cups of plain yogurt.
- Add 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest to the mascarpone cream.
- Top your finished tiramisù with a few chocolate-covered coffee beans.