Let’s bring back tiramisu, a classic dessert that deserves more love

Olga Massov

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tiramisu is a polarising dessert. Mention it, and people may squeal with delight or recoil in disgust – there’s no in-between. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, author Gillian Riley is unsparing, “At its best, in small quantities, a fine dessert, otherwise a gross, overrated indulgence.”

With all due respect, Riley, I disagree.

Tiramisu, which is loosely translated from Italian as “pick-me-up,” can be transcendent, restrained and, dare I say, cloudlike when made properly. It should taste sweet, creamy, and bitter all at once.

“When tiramisu is really good, the result is bigger than the sum of its parts,” said chef Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger in New York. He first learned how to make it at the now shuttered Galileo Restaurant in DC, which, at the time, was helmed by pastry chef Laurie Alleman Weber. Headley still makes tiramisu the same way he was taught – packaged savoiardi (ladyfingers cookies, which he prefers over homemade sponge), mascarpone, raw egg yolks, and cocoa powder.

“The slight bitterness of coffee, gentle dairy flavour from mascarpone – it’s a good balance between luxury ingredients and the stuff you can get at a grocery store,” Headley said. “I find the process of making tiramisu therapeutic – soaking the savoiardi and then stacking them in a pan.”

The dessert’s origin story is hazy, but its roots date back to the ‘60s in Treviso, Italy. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that it took New York by storm. Soon trendy restaurants through the United States (US) – Italian or not – offered it.

Tiramisu’s popularity became a double-edged sword. As more and more restaurants served it, including national chains, many began cutting corners. The dessert has so few ingredients that when even one isn’t good quality, it shows – ending in a cloying confection.

We’ve all had bad tiramisu.

Tiramisu. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Its basic components are universally accepted. Tiramisu is made with ladyfingers (or sponge cake) dipped in – or brushed with – espresso, and layered with a whipped, sweetened mascarpone-yolk mixture.

Everything else is up for debate.

Some argue the egg yolks must be gently cooked into a zabaglione, while others, like Headley, insist on raw yolks. There are versions that fold whipped cream or beaten egg whites into mascarpone as a lightener (and likely to keep the whites from being wasted).

“I found the unpopularity of the dessert is part of the appeal,” von Hauske told me, “and I wanted to eat something that reminded me of my childhood”. He prefers to use firmer sponge cake and makes the portions to-order but agrees it’s a dessert that does especially well when allowed to sit so the flavours mingle.

Centrolina pastry chef, Caitlin Dysart, has found the dessert suits the times we’re in.

“We’ve been hesitant to put it on the menu, because people expect that from an Italian restaurant, and it felt cliche, whereas we wanted to explore a vast variety of Italian cuisine,” the DC-based chef said. “But we’ve been making it a lot since COVID, when we switched to takeout only. It travels and keeps very well. I’ve found that people are really going for those comfort foods and love it.”

As for tiramisu’s longevity, Dysart believed it has stood the test of time because, if made well, it’s at once elegant and comforting.

“I always think I don’t like it,” she said, “and then I eat a piece, and really enjoy it”.

Through trial and error, I’ve come up with my favourite version. I lighten the mascarpone-yolk mixture with beaten egg whites and just a touch of whipped cream.

I dial back the sugar and lightly dip the ladyfingers in strong, bitter espresso to cut through the richness of dairy and egg and balance the sweetness. While some prefer to drench the savoiardi in the coffee, I prefer a moistened cookie that retains its texture beside the creamy layers, making me want to eat bite after bite.

I finish it with a flourish: shavings of bittersweet chocolate, though I also like using high-quality unsweetened cocoa powder.

Then, I have to wait patiently for my tiramisu to set – which just might be the hardest part of making this dessert.

TIRAMISU

45 minutes (plus 12 hours chilling time)

Eight to 12 servings

Here, tiramisu, a popular no-cook Italian dessert invented in the 1960s and fashionable in the 1980s, gets a lift and lightness from an untraditional addition, freshly whipped cream, which also helps to tone down its richness. Because the eggs in this dessert are not cooked, use pasteurised eggs for food safety.

Make Ahead: Tiramisu needs to be made at least six hours and preferably overnight ahead of serving.

INGREDIENTS

Two cups strong coffee/espresso, at room temperature

Four large eggs, separated and at room temperature

1/2 cup (100 grammes) granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups (500 grammes) mascarpone, from two (eight-ounce/225-gramme) containers

1/2 cup (120 millilitres) heavy cream

About 48 ladyfingers (savoiardi), from two (seven-ounce/200-gramme) packages

Shaved bittersweet chocolate, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

In a wide, shallow bowl, pour coffee and set aside.

In a large bowl, using a hand mixer on medium-high speed, beat the yolks with the sugar and salt until pale and creamy, about three minutes.

Add the mascarpone and beat on medium-high speed until combined and billowy. In a medium bowl, using a hand mixer on high speed, beat the heavy cream until soft peaks form, about two minutes.

Gently fold the whipped cream into the egg yolk mixture.

In another medium bowl, using a hand mixer on low speed and gradually increasing to high, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, two to three minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the mascarpone-yolk mixture until combined.

Dip each ladyfinger into coffee for just a few seconds and line the bottom of a nine-by-12-by-two-inch dish. Repeat with more ladyfingers to form a single layer on the bottom of the pan.

Spread half of the mascarpone mixture evenly over the top. Repeat with the remaining ladyfingers and mascarpone mixture. Smooth out the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least six hours and preferably overnight.

When ready to serve, generously dust the top with the chocolate shavings, then slice and plate. Serve cold or chilled.

NUTRITION

Calories: 355; Total Fat: 17g; Saturated Fat: 10g; Cholesterol: 196mg; Sodium: 128mg; Carbohydrates: 36g; Dietary Fibre: 1g; Sugars: 9g; Protein: 8g.