Here’s an elegant dessert ‘cake’ that even non-bakers like myself can make easily. The truth is, the ‘cake’ part of this dessert consists of those elegant elongated cookies called ‘ladyfingers’ in English and savoiardi in Italian. The ladyfingers are lightly dipped in espresso, then layered with mascarpone creamed with egg, sugar and marsala, then ‘baked’ in the fridge for a few hours (or even days) and finally dusted with cocao before serving. There is really nothing to it and yet serving a homemade tiramisù, with its reputation as a fancy dessert, will ensure that your guests will be mightily impressed.
500g (1 lb) store-bought ladyfingers
3 freshly made single espressos
Simple sugar syrup (or some sugar) to taste
500g (1 lb.) 4 oz. mascarpone
5 eggs, separated
About 250g (1/2 lb.) sugar
Begin by making some strong shots of espresso coffee:
If you don’t have an espresso maker, a potful of espresso made in a stovetop pot will do quite fine. Then mix your espresso with some of the simple syrup, if you have some on hand, or just a few spoonfuls of sugar, to taste. You can also use the coffee without sugar, as the mascarpone cream will add sweetness.
To make the mascarpone mixture, separate the yolks from the whites. Set the whites aside for the moment. Then whisk the yolks together with the sugar briskly until they form a kind of cream; you should be able to see ‘ribbons’ in the mixture as you whisk it. A stand mixer makes short work of this job.
Then add the mascarpone and a dash of marsala, and continue whisking until you have a homogeneous cream mixture.
Now, in a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks.
Fold the egg whites gently into the mascarpone mixture:
Now that you have your coffee and mascarpone mixture ready, it is time to assemble the dish: take a ladyfinger, dip it on both sides in the espresso, very briefly, just to barely coat the outside. (Don’t linger or your ladyfingers will soften to mush!) As you dip the ladyfingers, arrange them in a rectangular or square baking dish. Continue until you have covered the bottom of the dish with them. (NB: Depending on the size of your dish, you may need to lay them in different directions and/or break some of the ladyfingers into shorter lengths.)
Once you have your first layer of ladyfingers, spread some of the mascarpone mixture over them, enough to cover them entirely. Then lay another layer of ladyfingers on top of that:
Finally, lay over another layer of the mascapone mixture:
Put the dish into the fridge for at least an hour, better several hours or even overnight. The longer you let it sit, the more the mascarpone mixture will penetrate the ladyfingers and soften them up. It will also help the elements to form a more solid mass. A freshly made tiramisù will be very creamy and rather loose when served, as pictured above, while a well-rested one will be more cake-like. Each version has its charms.
In any event, right before you’re ready to serve, dust the top of your tiramisù with unsweetened cocoa powder (the kind you would bake with). Use as much or as little as you like. Personally, I prefer just a light dusting.
NOTES: The two main ingredients for this dish, ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese, can be surprisingly hard to find. They are also both rather expensive to buy. You can make the ladyfingers yourself–they are not at all hard to make. I have seen suggestions for using spongecake or pound cake, which should (more or less) work as well, but since these are already quite soft, your tiramisù will not need as long as rest in the fridge. As for the mascarpone, you can substitute regular cream cheese (‘Philadelphia’ style) loosened with some cream. (I have also heard of substituting ricotta, whipped until perfectly smooth, but that would give you a rather different flavor.)
A common variation for tiramisù is to use zabaglione in place of the mascarpone mixture. Zabaglione is simply marsala wine thickened with egg yolks heated over a double-boiler, usually in a round-bottomed copper pot which is made expressly for the purpose. I will blog on zabaglione one day, as it is delicious and wonderful just on its own as a dessert or snack. Also common is the substitution of rum or other liqueur of your choose instead of the marsala.
The main thing to remember when making tiramisù is that the success depends largely on balancing the sweetness of the sugar with the bitter flavors of the coffee and cocoa. Neither should predominate. Be careful, then, when adding sugar. And if, as sometimes happens, you find ladyfingers sprinkled with sugar, reduce the sugar you add to the coffee and/or cream to compensate.
Otherwise, as I said, this dish is simplicity itself and a real crowd-pleaser. No need to tell anyone how easy it is to make… Enjoy!