October 5, 2014

Blog the Twenty-fourth: Oh, to Woo with Tiramisú!

An Instant Classic

I remember with Proustian clarity the first time I had tiramisú at Café Dante in New York’s West Village, where I spent many nights of my teenage years as a weekend ex-pat from Brooklyn.  The not yet trendy dessert exemplified the Italian genius for suffusing gracefully light substance with intense flavor—case in point:  gelato.  Did you know that gelato has less milk cream in it than American ice cream?  So much less that it even falls below the legal standard to be branded “ice cream”.  The impression it gives of creaminess comes from richness of flavor and refinement of texture.  It’s art perfecting nature, not just packaging it.

Tiramisú is the Italian answer to English trifle.  Trifle has the exuberance of the barbarian about it, with its voluptuous mounding of luxuries: whipped heavy cream between deposits of rum-soaked sponge cake, strewn with fruits both fresh and liquored, along with any other trifle fancy may suggest be thrown in to boot.  Italians have a dessert inspired by it called zuppa inglese (“English soup”), in which ladyfinger biscuits are dunked in sweet vermouth and then layered with yellow pastry cream, of the sort my mother’s people call French cream For a while before they came to America, her father had a café in Sacco that my mother ran, and she fondly remembers making gelato and zuppa inglese to offer for sale.  But the very name tells you that, however much the Italians enjoyed this confection, they felt it as foreign.

Not so with tiramisú The name means “pick-me-up”, no doubt because of the espresso in which the ladyfingers are soaked­—which are called savoiardi in Italian (suggesting that they are perhaps an import from the French House of Savoy, although it’s unclear whether Savoyan cooks weren’t in fact Italians, making the name a faux ami I surely need not recall for you, Gentle Reader, that the foundations of French haute cuisine were laid by the Neapolitan cooks Catherine de Medici brought with her from Italy to France?).  The history of tiramisu’s origins, though quite modern, is controverted, and far less interesting and less charming than the origins of my own recipe, which I’ll tell instead. 

Long after I left Brooklyn for graduate study in D.C., and long before D.C. became cool and culinary, a fellow grad-student, who was effectively Italian by desire if not by birth, brought it as a dessert offering to one of those dinner parties that extended the writing of my doctoral dissertation by some years.  There’s a Latin saying, that countrymen in a foreign land are instant friends, and I was utterly delighted with her tiramisú as at the sudden sight of a long lost friend in the land of my exile.  And all the more delighted, when I heard how she learned to make it. 

One day while she was riding an Italian train during her junior year of “study” abroad, a flirtatious Tuscan started chatting her up, when somehow tiramisú came up.  When she gushed, “I love tiramisú,” he seized his moment and her ticket, and began to scribble the recipe on the back of it, as he gushed in rejoinder, “I know how to make tiramisú!”  And he really did.  Nietzsche once exclaimed about the life of the ancient Greeks, “Imagine a world in which the very water jugs are beautiful!”  Ah, how about a world in which lovers woo with recipes of tiramisú That’s how guys get girls in Italy, it seems—at least American ones.

Tiramisú as a phenomenon of European culinary cross-fertilization would no doubt interest the cultural historian, but not me.  That botanical category of cultural history betrays spatio-temporal myopia.  I don’t think of the food of my people as spatio-temporal.  When my people recognize something as a better way of cooking something they’ve been cooking for a long time, they immediately own it as what they've meant to be doing all along.  That’s because we don’t think of our cooking as a historical inheritance to be preserved against change, but rather as the trans-historical form of our culinary being.  Such a ‘form’ is not a particular spatio-temporal ‘shape’, the way “upright biped” is the form of a human being, but rather a perennial form of existing, as “rational” tells the human being’s kind and way of being in every time and place.  Such a form does not so much adapt to historical circumstances—as the historian or evolutionist would have it—as it adapts its circumstances to its own conceptions and desires.

My people perpetuate a way of eating and cooking we think best, and when we come across an even better way of doing what we’ve been doing, we adopt it as what we’ve been aiming at all along.  Our present recipes are the spatio-temporal shapes our cooking has taken thus far, but their primary source is not what lies behind us—what they were at first—but rather what lies before us:  what we have always been wanting them to be in the end.  We welcome innovation that brings forth new things from old, or reincarnates old things in new, or grafts new things onto old or old things onto new, as the perpetuation of our way of eating.  In my family, nobody makes claims to a recipe as their own.  We instead refer to this or that aunt’s or friend’s way of making something:  each may have their own way, and we may well think one way better than another way, but all our ways have in common what we’re all aiming at, namely a transcendental form of food available to be realized in every time and place, but for that very reason belonging to no one time, place, or person. 

The phenomenon of tiramisú’s becoming an “instant classic” on both sides of the Atlantic is much more revealing than the facts of its historical emergence:  tiramisú is what zuppa inglese was trying to be all along.  Wherever it may have first been made, historically speaking, that's neither here nor there for its being quintessentially Italian, existentially speaking.  My mother and aunt were stunned at their first taste of it in D.C., when I served them the wooer’s version of it on one of their visits.  Upon recovering themselves, my aunt said, “Where did you find this?”, as if I had found a long lost cousin.  It became an instant family classic, and I was ever after expected to bring it to plenary sessions of the extended family on holidays like Christmas Eve. 

Well, I have a cousin, big, bluff, and buff, a father of five with a physique like Achilles and a sense of humor as boisterous as Aristophanes’.  He keeps his family in suburban comfort and safety by dint of Odyssean forays weekdays to the nearby isle, where he raids its financial markets for his livelihood, but he likes nothing better than to return home to long-desired (and well-earned) leisure among his family, whom he reliably entertains with comic harangues as loud as they are clever.  If once he sets his comic sights on you, you know you’re in for some verbal roughhousing.  It may be more fun to watch than to suffer, but it’s always entertaining, in any case.

Well, when he tasted “my” tiramisú for the first time one Christmas Eve at my sister’s, the boyish man could not resist the impulse to, if not puncture, then poke at the general acclaim, with an insidiously quiet aside to me:  “This is really delicious.  But I think I might like my cousin Robert’s just a little better,” merrily raising his eyebrows and cadence.  Robert is his cousin on his other side, who had apparently already introduced tiramisú to his paternal branch of our extended family (Italian families branch extensively), and my cousin could not resist attempting to foment internecine rivalry, being himself.  I see this, and make an attempt to impugn his (and Robert’s) taste with the retort, “Well, maybe he makes it sweeter—some people like to put sweet liqueurs in the coffee,” but he parries that deflection with a disingenuous, “Oh, I don’t know anything about how he makes it; I’m just saying I might like his just a little better.  But yours is delicious too.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m just saying.”  And again with the merry brows.

It took me a little time to figure out how to grab this merry-making Achilles by his heel, but I did.   It came to me one day, while making a tiramisú, to call him and leave him a message, in the wan tone of a longsuffering Italian mother, the tone of voice she uses to leave you the message, I was just calling to see if you’re okay, since I haven’t heard from you in a while; call Mamma, when you get this, okay?—How many Italian mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?  Oh, don’t worry about me, I don’t mind sitting in the dark.—in that tone of voice, I say, “Hey, I was thinking of you because I’m making tiramisú, and ever since that time you told me you thought maybe you like Robert’s just a little better, e-v-e-r-y time I make tiramisú, I remember that and think of you, so I thought I’d just call and see how you’re doing.”

With that blow below the belt, I was ready to rope-a-dope a return volley next time I saw him, but he stunned me instead with a disarmingly sincere confession about how bad he felt when he heard that message, and has felt since.  The humility manifest on his brow seemed to dumbfound itself as much as it did me.  He also mentioned how creepy my voice sounded on the machine, and how he even worried for a second before he caught what I was calling about.  It seems that my voice succeeded in channeling the Italian son’s maternal superego, rearing its horrifying head from behind its usual cloak of mild visage, as unexpectedly as the god Krishna, incarnate as Arjuna’s gentle charioteer, interrupts their philosophical dialogue to horrify this Hindu Achilles of the Bhagavad-gita with a vision of God’s jaws chewing up the warring cousins whom Arjuna was being enjoined by Krishna to slay in battle that day, to reclaim from them his usurped throne.

Enough of chewed up cousins.  Time to talk of making tiramisú. Let’s begin with the ingredients.  The first and primary ingredient is a commonplace Italian cheese called mascarpone, a soft fresh buttery cheese, a cream cheese of sorts, except not, so don’t even think of trying to substitute cream cheese in this recipe. To explain mascarpone’s importance, I’ll draw an analogy with my last post:  as the essence of lasagna is not the noodle it is named after, but rather the ricotta layered between them, similarly, the essence of tiramisú is not the coffee-soak it is named for (in fact, I use decaf. for less pick-me-up), but rather the mascarpone cream layered between the coffee-soaked biscuits.  But every analogy has its disanalogy, and the disanalogy here is that, whereas ricotta is remarkably delicious on its own, mascarpone is remarkably not.  It has the luscious smoothness of the finest butter, but not the luscious taste, and when you taste it, it’s a shock to discover that buttery texture without buttery flavor is not at all delicious.  Your perplexity only deepens when it turns out that merely adding eggs and sugar to it renders it incredibly delicious, yet not eggy delicious nor sugary delicious.  Mascarpone’s unaccountable deliciousness appears to lie latent deep within it, a pearl of great price Nature awards only to those who know how to dig it out and set it off.

Now although mascarpone is a common and inexpensive cheese in Italy, it ain’t here.  I guess supply-side economics explains that sort of thing, but I have found that such explanations do nothing to assuage the resentment that has accompanied my every purchase of it after I lived in Italy for a year and got used to getting it on the cheap.  You’d think a couple of decades would attenuate such resentment, but it hasn’t.  It may be that the wound gets a fresh salt-rub every time I have to choose between the outrageously priced Italian import and the cheaper-but-still-not-cheap-enough stuff from Wisconsin.  I used to be a snob and insist on the Italian, which has a finer flavor but is also wetter (for which reason I’m careful to drain all its excess liquid), but I’ve come to appreciate the greater density and dryness of the American product for its firmer mounting.  Each offers its own satisfaction.

Next come the biscuits, called savoiardi in Italian and “ladyfingers” in English, but here I insist on the Italian imports.  There are many cookies that go by the name “ladyfinger” in America, and almost all would be wrong for this recipe.  Italian savoiardi are quite crisp on the outside and quite airy on the inside.  They’re in no way cakey, and don’t have much taste on their own.  You can of course usually find Italian savoiardi in Italian groceries or delis, but tiramisú has become popular enough on the East Coast that you can also find them even in supermarkets (e.g., my parents’ Shoprite in Jersey)—but often on aisles that neither you nor the stock-boy expect them to be, so keep an eye out for them, and if you spot them one day while shopping, make a mental note of where.  They come both in single packs and four-packs, and you’ll need two packs for a small tiramisú, and at least three packs for a big one.

Now there’s the question of coffee, a question vexed by many issues.  First of all, it has to be espresso, and strong espresso, and you’re going to need a lot of it, and if someone has prevailed upon you to buy a pricey machine to make authentic espresso at home, I fear it will be ridiculous for you to stand there and count out a couple dozen ristretto’s.  Truth is, I hate to tell you, that far more authentic than your fancy machine is an ordinary stove-top pot, called a machinetta or caffetiere, which you could get for under $20 (a staple brand being Bialetti).  The pots come in different sizes, the 6-cup being perhaps the most common.  I’d make at least two 6-cup pots of espresso for a large tiramisú, but a little more would be even better.  (I have a 12-cup pot I brought back from Italy, which I love for this purpose as well as for dinner parties with Gentiles who drink inordinate amounts of espresso after dinner, but I have not come across this mega-size in the States.) 

The machinetta is actually a rather modern invention, where modern means under a century old.  When I was growing up, some people still used the old Neapolitan drip-pot at home (and my sister prefers it to this day), which has a metal coffee filter that fits into a pot for boiling the water; a second serving pot in turn fits over this pair, but upside down, so that once the water comes to a boil, you can turn the whole threesome over, so that the hot water drips down from the boiling pot into serving pot; by the time that happens, you need to gently reheat the coffee.  With a machinetta, you put the water in the bottom, set into it the metal filter which you fill completely with coffee grounds, and then screw on the top, which has a nozzle rising up in the middle of it from which the coffee spews into the upper chamber as from an oil well, once enough pressure builds up in the lower chamber to pressure the water up and through the coffee grounds.  Espresso made this way has a taste all its own, more homey and comfy than, if not as distilled and extracted as, an espresso made at a bar, offering its own species of pleasure. 

I remember how disappointed I was the first time I was invited out to an Italian coffee bar, when we downed our coffee like a shot of whiskey, standing at the bar, and having chatted only as long as it took the barista to make it.  I was in a small town outside Milan that had been all but shuttered for the traditional August summer vacations, and I was more or less sequestered in a superannuated seminary complex where I was being put up for free for the summer. My tentative grip on Italian made me feel incommunicado, so I was as grateful at first to be asked out as I was later despondent at the brevity of the outing.  Drinking espresso at home is not like that.  You sit, you talk, you pick at sweets, someone starts a political argument, someone tells a joke, someone confesses to a sin or a sorrow, you have another half cup and pour someone else one; your mind feels desultory and you like it.

I don’t how to advise you, Gentle Gentile, if you don’t like sugar in your coffee.  It is critical in making tiramisú that you sweeten your espresso with sugar “until delicious”—that’s the direction—and if you don’t know delicious when you taste it, then you are beyond my help, are you not?  I ask you to confess it against yourself.  Worse yet, because you also want to spike your espresso with spirits, be it something drier like cognac or something sweeter like Grand Marinier, your espresso will need even more sugar than usual.  But if the corruption of your taste should go so far as to prefer your tiramisú made with unsweetened coffee, then your sin will be mortal and you anathematized:  I do not know you—or your tiramisú.

Last coffee issue:  the coffee must be made well in advance, so as to cool completely to room temperature.  If you’re in a rush, you could pour your hot coffee into a metal bowl and put it in the frig, or set it into an ice bath.  However, you don’t want your coffee chilled—albeit too cold is a lesser evil than too warm. You’re going to be dunking the savoiardi into the coffee and you’ll want them only half soaked with coffee.  For some reason I can’t explain, if the coffee is warm, the tiramisú doesn’t set right and it comes out wet, not to mention flaccid.  If the coffee is too cold, on the other hand, you have to work harder at making sure each biscuit soaks in enough coffee.  The time it takes biscuits to absorb coffee varies quite a lot, from brand to brand and batch to batch, and room-temperature coffee gives the most even and predictable results.

Your tiramisú will need to set in the refrigerator for a long time—ideally overnight, but at the very least from morning to evening—and it of course will need to be covered, so you want a pan deep enough to allow covering without defacing.  Before I invested in a couple of transparent and lidded Pyrex pans—a 9in. by 3in. deep one with a flat lid, for a small tiramisú, and a large 12in. long one, not as deep, but with a slightly domed lid to compensate (a glass-topped Corningware would work well too)—I used to insert toothpicks into the tiramisú, and very gingerly fold aluminum foil over them, and then cross my fingers, which didn’t always work.  I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.

Okay, I made the coffee at lunchtime, dinner’s done, and it’s time to make a tiramisú for tomorrow’s party.  I’m going to make a big one, so I bought the big pint-size tub of mascarpone (I use the half-pint tub for a small tiramisú,, with 2eggs and ¼-cup sugar) I’m using my 12x8 pyrex dish with the domed lid; and I used my 12-cup pot to make the coffee, spiking it with perhaps a tablespoon of Remy Martin cognac, and sweetening it with about 12 mounded espresso-spoons of sugar, plus one more for the pot/cognac.  

To start the cream, I wash four jumbo eggs with soap and water, and dry them with a paper towel, on the unverified belief that this militates against salmonella spread.  I crack each egg open and use its shell-halves to gently toss its yolk back and forth while I let the egg white drip into a chilled bowl, taking special care to keep the yolks in tact and the egg whites pure of yolk.  I collect the four separated yolks into a second, larger bowl, and add a ½-cup of sugar and a teaspoon or two of vanilla (sometimes Trader Joe’s Tahitian vanilla, flavored with bourbon). 

I pull out my hand mixer.  First I want to beat the egg whites up into a meringue, so I put on the whisk attachment (although I could make do with the beaters, if I wanted to).  Throwing a pinch of salt onto the whites, I start the beater on low, revolving and angling my beater to draw air into the whites, so they froth.  The more they froth, the more I raise the speed, and the whites begin to solidify more and more, and whiten more and more, and mount more and more, and I get excited by this, but in a very chaste sort of way, and when the mounting meringue has become dense enough to leaves ripples in the wake of my beaters, then I suddenly turn off the mixer, and stand very, very still; once all motion has ceased, then I draw my beaters up smooth and straight, and if they leave behind a peak that stands erect, they’re ready.  But if their peak droops, it’s not ready, not until it stiffens completely.  I won't draw analogies.

Once you’ve gotten your egg whites to stiffen, you’re ready to do the same to your yolks:  to beat sugar and vanilla into your egg yolks until they likewise peak and “ribbon”.  Switch out your whisker for your beaters, if you started off with a whisker.   Again, as before, start at low speed, angle to aerate, and keep at it until the yolks grow pale, and peak to double the volume, and ripple ribbons.  You’ll know they’ve peaked when you stop your mixer and can drip a design onto the surface of the batter that takes 3 seconds to sink back in. Now add in the mascarpone and use the mixer at moderate speed to blend it very well with the egg yolks, for a smooth even cream.

Now set your electric hand-mixer aside (yes, you may lick the beaters first) and grab a big spatula.  Pour out your egg-white meringue across your egg-yolk batter and start folding the one into the other by swiping the bottom of the bowl with the spatula and bringing up the yolk cream from below over and onto the meringue.  Keep rotating the bowl while swiping under, up, and over, with an occasional swipe down the middle of the batter, taking care not to overdo it:  you want to amalgamate these two into a smooth mound of cream using as few, gentle, and rhythmic swipes as possible, so as to lose as little air-lift as possible, and to end up with a cream that mounds fluffily.  [I can’t believe my spell-check is accepting “fluffily”.]

Okay, cream’s good to go; let’s start the dunking.  I’ve poured my cooled coffee into a bowl with a wide enough bottom to accommodate my ladyfinger’s length.  I dunk the biscuit and count 5 mississippis (there should be some gurgling—by the biscuit, not you); then I pull up the biscuit, break it in half, and check to see if it’s half soaked through, with a dry core.  If not, I increase or reduce my mississippis accordingly.  Then I dunk the biscuits one by one, laying them down in the pan snugly side by side, arranging to cover the whole bottom of the pan with a solid layer of espresso-soaked ladyfingers. 

That done, I pour out a little less than half of the mascarpone cream along the length of the pan, and gently use my spatula to evenly spread the cream across the layer of soused savoiardi Then I dust the layer of cream evenly all over with Dutched cocoa powder, using a very fine little sieve, which I gently bang on the side with a spoon.  Now I lay down the second layer of soused savoiardi, the rest of the mascarpone cream, and a final dusting of cocoa-powder, for a mottled cocoa firmament bespeckled by myriad specks of cream peeking through, like numberless star pixels of far distant galaxies.

Cover and chill in the frig overnight.  Why did you bother with all that fluffing if it all just settles down into a compact cream?  Because it makes it taste good.  You don’t need to know how it does, you just need to know that it does.  Speaking of what you do need to know, you need to keep your tiramisú chilled here on in, because it’s made with raw eggs, and there’s always a danger of ever-present salmonella multiplying to sickening levels.

Tiramisú can run a gamut from pudding-like to cake-like, depending on how much you soak the biscuits.  Between these two extremes, I’d sooner err on the side of wet than dry, because excess coffee means more flavor, and less, less.  Also, a drier, more cakey tiramisú seems not as good as a good cake.  I like it best when I hit the mean, so that the savoiardi still have some cakey spring at their core, but are otherwise well moistened round about with espresso.

Last time I made tiramisú, we were going for Easter dinner the next day to my godmother’s, who happens also to be the mother of Achilles of the merry brows.  My mother suggests we surprise her with a tiramisú.  We are in our turn surprised to find that Robert has come to Easter dinner with his own tiramisú.  Uh-oh, a tiramisú throwdown!, bellows Achilles merrily to the crowd of cousins.  Well, of course, all the aunts declared them both delicious [it was, after all, Easter; and Robert is, after all, a priest; I’m just saying], but as my father said later back home, mine was better, no comparison, and as my father always says, my father never lies; and once my father said it, even my mother could admit it. 

But perhaps better testimony is another aside to me by Achilles himself, who upon a first taste of mine, raised his eyebrows from his dessert plate in a spontaneous utterance, Umm , this is even better than I remember Well, if you’ll remember, my last one he said he maybe liked just a little less than Robert’s, so I leave you to draw your own conclusions, Roberto.



* For a large 12x8 in. pan, make at least 3 cups (24 oz.) of strong espresso, spiked with a tablespoon or two of spirits or liqueur, and sweetened with sugar, until delicious. Cool completely to room temperature in a bowl.
* Wash 4 jumbo eggs with soap and water. Separate the yolks and whites into two bowls. Beat the egg whites with a pinch or two of salt into a stiff meringue. Beat the egg yolks with ½ cup sugar and teaspoon or two of vanilla.
* Add a pint-sized tub of mascarpone to the creamed yolks and blend well with a hand blender, for an evenly smooth cream. Then with a spatula fluffily fold the meringue into the cream by hand.
* Dunk savoiardi into the cooled espresso only long enough to soak them half way through, leaving a dry core, and layer them snugly side by side across the whole bottom of the pan.
* Pour out less than half the cream over this first layer of soused savoiardi, and spread it evenly to cover. Then dust the cream evenly with Dutched cocoa powder. Repeat, for a second layer of soused savoiardi, to be covered by the rest of the mascarpone cream and a final dusting of cocoa.
* Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least all day long. It will taste great for days to come.