A Renaissance Dessert Reborn

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Brenda Bell last wrote about budin Azteca for the magazine

Got tiramisu?

Practically everyone does these days. They’re serving tiramisu in Fargo, N.D., and in Jackson, Miss. You can buy it frozen at your local Price Club/Costco. And if you’re ever stuck in Wichita Falls, Texas, you’ll be happy to know you can pick up the ingredients at Kouri’s Supermarket to make your own.

Clearly, tiramisu--it means “pick me up” in Italian--has moved far beyond the realm of the culinary cognoscenti. On the eve of the new millennium, this irresistible dessert--immortalized in film and elevated to cult status on the World Wide Web--is on the lips of the hoi polloi as well.


“Tiramisu,” says Rob Reiner cryptically as the characters he and Tom Hanks play discuss the dating game in a scene from 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle.”


“What is it?” asks the innocent Hanks.

“You’ll find out.”

“Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!” Hanks wails.

“You’ll love it,” Reiner smirks.


Such naivete sounds dated now. Tiramisu’s popularity is perfectly in sync with fin-de-siecle trends: its romantic Tuscan origins, its pleasing juxtaposition of comfort-food texture with the grown-up flavors of espresso, fortified wine, bittersweet chocolateu and exotic cheese as soft and rich as whipped butter. No wonder tiramis’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity took only a few years and created a near-religious following.

Craig Miyamoto, a former Los Angeles newspaper reporter who now lives in Hilo, Hawaii, was so blown away by his first taste of tiramisu that he developed a Web site ( devoted to the dessert. In the last two years, more than 100,000 visitors have clicked on “this little thing I started,” says Miyamoto, who regularly compiles recipes, restaurant ratings across the country and new sources for such vital tiramis ingredients as ladyfingers and mascarpone, an Italian triple-cream cheese. There’s much online chat about transcendental tiramis experiences. (“Nobody up here in the cold Canadian Yukon knows what I’m talking about,” sniffs one correspondent. “I live among philistines!”)

Tiramisu is said to have originated in Siena and was brought by the Medicis to Florence, where it became popular among English expatriates and was called zuppa Inglese. Its enduring appeal lies in a formula similar to a trifle or charlotte: pieces of cake spiked with alcohol and layered with custard. The adjective I hear most frequently to describe this ethereal interplay of flavor and texture is “heavenly.”

When asked what’s the best tiramisu they’ve ever had, most devotees have the same answer: “Mine.” Given the proper ingredients, home cooks can create tiramis as good or better than that served in the finest restaurants and cater to their own tastes as well. Some like the dessert drenched in Marsala and rum; others want less chocolate or more cream or mascarpone. I prefer Sara Lee poundcake to ladyfingers, a high chocolate-to-custard ratio and no rum at all. The funny thing is, all of these versions are wonderful.

The following recipe is adapted from Elaine Corn’s “Gooey Desserts: The Joy of Decadence” (Prima Publishing, 1994). At my dinner parties, I’ve served it to novices and connoisseurs alike with stunning success--even the time it failed to set and had to be frozen. Unlike recipes that use a raw-egg custard, this tiramisu calls for a safer (and more delicious) alternative: zabaglione, a frothy custard cooked with Marsala. If the zabaglione separates after cooling, return it to the stove and whisk for a few more minutes. Once the tiramis is assembled, no one will notice any flaws. And that includes the philistines.*




Makes 12 servings


5 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup Marsala

1 cup heavy cream

8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened to room temperature

6-8 ounces good bittersweet chocolate (such as Callebaut or Ghiradelli

1 cup espresso or strong black coffee

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons rum (optional)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 frozen poundcake, thawed (or 8 ounces of ladyfingers or homemade spongecake)


Beat egg yolks and sugar in medium bowl with whisk or hand-held electric mixer until pale and thick, about 2 minutes. Place mixture in double boiler over simmering water and add Marsala. Continue beating at low speed as zabaglione cooks. It should become very fluffy, nearly tripling in volume. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and refrigerate.

Whip cream until stiff peaks form. With spatula, stir mascarpone in large bowl and fold in a spoonful or two of whipped cream to lighten cheese. Fold in remaining whipped cream. Add cold zabaglione the same way, first adding in a spoonful or two, then folding in remaining zabaglione. Return custard mixture to refrigerator.

Break chocolate into small pieces and grate in food processor until very fine. Combine espresso, sugar, vanilla extract and rum in small bowl. Cut poundcake or spongecake into thin (1/4-inch) slices. Dip cake slices or ladyfingers in espresso mixture and arrange in single layer in bottom of 3-quart casserole dish. Cover with half of custard mixture and half of grated chocolate. Repeat layers. Chill at least 2 hours before serving.


Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson