Tiramisu has slightly fallen out of favour in recent years: a staple on the menus of Italian restaurants both here and in its home country, it perhaps seems old fashioned. But one taste of the boozy, coffee-laden, creamy pudding will set these fears to rest, or at least stop you caring.
Like any pudding worth its salt – or sugar – the origins of tiramisu are contested. The most popular account is that it dates back to the 1960s, surprisingly recently for what has become an institution of Italian cuisine. It is said to have come from a restaurant in Treviso in northern Italy, created by Robert Linguanotto, a confectioner and owner of Le Beccherie. His apprentice, Francesca Valori, had the maiden name, Tiramisu – or so the story goes.
Of course, others have quibbled with this origin story, and date it much further back, to the late 1600s, where it is said to have been made to honour Grand Duke Cosimo III, in Siena. Given that the Italians have for a long time been making zuppa inglese, the Italian trifle, or ‘English soup’ to give it its translation, it’s perfectly plausible that the tiramisu found its inspiration in older puddings. In any event, there is no mention of ‘tiramisu’ in cookbooks prior to the 1960s, lending credence to Linguanotto’s claim.
The name, though, irrespective of its origin, is a little simpler to make out: ‘tiramisu’ literally means ‘pick-me-up’, and it’s not hard to understand why: a tiramisu shouldn’t be a shy and retiring pudding: but punchy from the coffee, cutting through the drunken, marsala-sodden sponge. In proper trifle tradition, tiramisu is not a light pudding. And yet, it lives up to its name: even after a lengthy, pasta-laden supper, and too much wine, it’s hard to resist the prospect of a little bowl of this stuff. It is, exactly as it should be, the pudding equivalent of an after dinner espresso.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that tiramisu feels properly placed as a summery pudding. Unlike the English trifle which truly belongs, for me, at Christmas, the bitter coffee and dark chocolate, that king of flavour combinations, permits it a sunnier, stickier place in the pudding calendar.
So what makes a proper tiramisu? Its similarities with a trifle are obvious: a sponge dredged in something strong and wet, layered with sweetened cream, with a kick of booze threaded throughout the pudding. It’s slightly simpler than its British cousin: just two layers repeated, one of sponge, and one of cream, rather than the possibilities of jam and jelly, blancmange and sprinkles, and whatever else happens to be lurking at the back of your baking cupboard.
Use proper savoiardi or ladyfinger sponge biscuits, the ones you get from the supermarket: don’t try to make your own sponge, because it won’t absorb the coffee in the same way. And anyway, the shop bought ones are perfect: brittle and stiff when dry, they transform to absorb and soften whatever you choose to pour over or dunk them in. Tiramisus can be made with egg, but frankly it’s significantly easier, and just as delicious, to whisk mascarpone and cream together, spiked with a good slug of marsala wine, and just sweetened with a little sugar. The cocoa powder on top is obligatory, of course, don’t even think about skimping.
Makes: Pudding for 4
Takes: 10 minutes, plus chilling
Bakes: No time at all
1 tablespoon coffee
100g sponge finger
300ml double cream
3 tbsp golden caster sugar
A couple of squares of dark chocolate
1 tsp cocoa powder
1. Brew the coffee. If you’re using proper coffee, make sure to sieve out any grounds, but instant is quite good enough. Place in a dish and allow to cool just a little.
2. Break up the mascarpone with your whisk, stirring it until smooth. Add in the whipped cream, sugar and marsala, and whisk until smooth and thick.
3. Dunk the sponge fingers briefly into the coffee: they should feel saturated, but not be falling apart; remember that they will further soften as they sit in the pudding. Place a tight layer of them in the bottom of your serving bowl; you may need to break and squash some of them in to achieve this.
4. Spread the sponge fingers with a thick layer of the cream mixture, and grate a square of dark chocolate on top.
5. Repeat the two layers, placing the rest of the dunked sponge fingers on the creamy layer you have just spread, and top that with the rest of the cream.
6. Chill in the fridge for at least three hours. Just before serving, dust with cocoa powder and grate the remaining chocolate over the top.