By Italian standards, tiramisù (literally “pick-me-up”) is a culinary infant. Though its history is controversial and shrouded in mystery, almost everyone agrees that the dessert came from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy and was created for the first time only 40 years ago. It spread fast, though. By 1981, it was made throughout Italy and was beginning its international fame as well. Soon, overly sweet American versions were everywhere, and the balance and poise of the Italian original were being lost.
Of course, few recipes are truly original or unique. Whenever I think I’ve hit upon something entirely of my own creation, I’m frequently surprised to find a similar or identical preparation in a book a few weeks or months later. Novelty holds little interest for me as a cook. I don’t cook to impress others or express myself, but rather to nourish and comfort. I find good cooking to be much less like being a playwright than being a classical actor. But like an actor dedicated to the Shakespearean corpus, a cook in the Italian tradition is constantly challenged not to create but to interpret, not to innovate but to be true to one’s tradition. Of course, just as in theater, the best cooking is not characterless but rather reflects the personality of the cook. But this personality is reflected through the expression of something classic, time-tested, and worthy of respect.
The first and only tiramisù recipe I’ve ever made has been that of Giuliano Hazan, son of Marcella and Victor Hazan, both interpreters par excellence of Italian food and wine. Giuliano’s is so good, I’ve never been curious enough or tempted to make another. The secret to its brilliance is the choice of liqueur, Strega (Italian for “witch”), a delightful herbal-infused brew from Benevento, in Campania. Giuliano claims that Strega is the “classic” liqueur used for tiramisù, though I’ve never found a reference to its use in the dessert in any other recipe. Marsala is the almost universal choice, though one of those claiming to have invented the dessert insists it must be made with no liqueur at all! However, this is a rare instance in which I’m not too concerned about being true to the original. The use of Strega is so inspired that I have no inclination to try another way. As a traditional Italian recipe, Giuliano’s version is perfectly balanced, not overly sweet nor aggressively alcoholic. For me, this kind of balance represents cooking at its best.
The recipe I offer is Giuliano’s, with only very minor changes. Although Strega can be hard to find, it is worth ordering it by mail or tracking down when in New York or Philadelphia. Of course, it is also hard for most people to get hold of strong Italian coffee (espresso) at home. The recipe calls for around 16 ounces of the stuff. If you don’t have a friendly barista to call upon and don’t have a machine in your home, a stove-top moka pot is acceptable and even traditional. It is the method of making coffee most common in Italian homes. Even Bed, Bath, and Beyond seems to carry them now. The coffee is not great, but it’s perfect for tiramisù. The recipe makes 12 to 16 servings, so making a half recipe makes sense.
1) Prepare two cups of espresso and let cool slightly.
2) While the espresso is cooling, beat 4 egg yolks with 6 tablespoons sugar until ribbons form (1 or 2 minutes with an electric mixer).
3) Gradually add 3 tablespoons of Strega, 2 tablespoons of dark rum, and 500 grams of mascarpone, preferably imported. (Domestic containers are a little too small, but better than nothing!)
4) Whip ½ cup of heavy cream until thick, and then add by hand to the mascarpone mixture.
5) Dip one or two ladyfingers at a time in the espresso. I do 1 or 2 seconds maximum per side. More than that, and they will be a soggy mess. I also dip them in just a little coffee at a time in a shallow bowl. They will still seem hard after 1 or 2 seconds per side, but they will continue to soften while the dessert rests. You will need about 8 ounces of dried ladyfingers.
6) Dip and lay half of the ladyfingers in a single layer in a baking dish. Distribute half the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers, and then repeat with another layer of ladyfingers and another layer of mascarpone.
7) Finish with a light dusting of unsweetened cocoa over the top layer of mascarpone.
8) Refrigerate overnight, which will allow the flavors to blend and mellow. I like the dessert to come back almost to room temperature before serving. And I sprinkle a little fresh cocoa over each portion just before serving.