The many-layered mystery of tiramisu
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By the time you read this, the winners of this year’s Tiramisu World Cup will have been crowned. The tournament took place last weekend in Treviso in Italy, which claims to be the birthplace of the famous dessert.
According to one account, the dish was invented by Mrs Alba Campeol of Le Beccherie restaurant in Treviso, inspired by the hearty breakfasts of coffee and zabaglione (egg yolk and sugar) her mother-in-law would make to help her regain strength after giving birth. Campeol recruited Le Beccherie’s pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto to help turn this tonic into a dessert, resulting in layers of coffee-soaked biscuit slathered in mascarpone and zabaglione and dusted with chocolate. Thus, in 1962, tiramisu was born. Except other accounts give that date as 1969, and given that the dessert first appeared on the menu of Le Beccherie in 1972, this year could mark either a 60th or a 50th anniversary, or neither... or both.
Of course there are other theories. One credits the neighbouring region of Friuli Venezia Giulia as the birthplace, owing to a recipe from 1959 by Norma Pielli, proprietor of the Albergo Roma hotel in Tolmezzo, for a “mascarpone slice” she used to serve to hungry hikers. Dig even deeper and you find references to an aphrodisiac concocted by a Treviso madam – a sort of 19th-century Viagra that sheds fresh light on the dessert’s name, which means “pick-me-up” in the local dialect.
The Tiramisu World Cup, now in its sixth year and attracting hundreds of participants, is split into two categories – “original” for traditionalists and “creative” for the more experimental. Contenders for the latter are permitted to substitute lady fingers for another biscuit or sponge and make up to three additions to the basic ingredients. Last year’s winner, Elena Bonali, a 52-year-old swimming teacher from Milan who now lives in Antwerp, made hers using Lattebusche mascarpone, Hausbrandt coffee, Pavesini biscuits, egg yolk and sugar with chunks of melon in the layers and Parma ham flakes on top.
Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my tiramisu sans meat. I have fond memories of the versions my mother used to make in the ’90s, when mascarpone (which rhymed with “Al Capone” in our household) became readily available in the UK. Why has tiramisu remained so popular? It helps that it can be made in advance of any dinner party or service and kept in the fridge for hours. Nigella Lawson – before being converted to the dish by Italian cook Anna del Conte – admits snobbishly calling the dessert the “Black Forest Gateau of the 1990s”. For a BFG devotee like me, that actually goes some way to explaining its appeal. Like trifle, tiramisu is one of those simple, squishy, soothing desserts that ticks all the boxes. Though let’s face it, there are plenty of claggy, sickly versions on offer too. Rated among the best are those at Pompi in Rome and Piccola Cucina in New York, though I can’t wait to be reacquainted with the tiramisu at the lately reopened south London restaurant Forza Win.
As to which recipe to use? Nigella has five, including a white tiramisu with white rum; a version with Irish cream; and one with Frangelico and chopped roasted hazelnuts on top. Among other variations, the recipe from Le Beccherie uses only egg yolks, while most suggest folding in the whites for something less rich. Many recipes settle on lady fingers or boudoir biscuits. But I’m heeding Felicity Cloake’s advice to use Italian savoiardi, which are “drier and crumblier” and produce “a noticeably lighter final result – they soak up more liquid, while remaining fluffier than the denser boudoir”.
My favourite is the recipe from the most recent edition of the classic Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon because it’s so declaratively sure of itself. “Tiramisu is the ultimate Italian dessert: a masterpiece,” it proclaims. Given the snooty eye-rolling so often levelled at tiramisu, this vote of confidence is fortifying. The recipe, however, contains no alcohol. This doesn’t bother me. But the idea of tiramisu without booze is appalling to my taster (aka my other half). So I supplement with a few tablespoons of Equiano dark rum (Marsala or brandy are options too). I also splash out on mascarpone from Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk “made using the fresh warm cream of free-ranging Montbelliarde cows”, which sounds reassuring on so many levels.
After beating the egg yolks with sugar, folding in the whites and mascarpone, brushing the savoiardi with espresso and rum and layering with grated chocolate, I chill the tiramisu in the fridge. As it turns out, I’ve been way too sparing with the rum. The sponge isn’t remotely boozy enough for you-know-who. But we manage, spooning out great divots and demolishing what would be a serving for eight to 10 in a couple of days. At one point I Google: “Can you eat tiramisu for breakfast?” though I already know the answer.