Sunday, September 7, 2008

And now, for a little pick-me-up

Tiramisu is apparently Italian for "pick me up". I've never come across a tiramisu recipe that has failed to mention this, which is one reason that I was a little skeptical when I set out on my most ambitious dessert-making endeavor to date. Why, after all, would one need to justify a perfectly good recipe - much less a dessert recipe - with this phrase? Don't get me wrong, I like tiramisu and will hardly protest when others serve it to me or order it to share. (I actually don't refuse desserts unless they come before dinner, which in my opinion is a cardinal sin. And as BFFT will testify, I'm terrible at sharing them unless I can be assured that I'll get at least 50%. But those are discussions best saved for another time, assuming you're not too scared off by my sweet-tooth-schoolmarmish tendencies to keep following this blog.) Nevertheless, I had a hard time discerning why so many people I love and respect, my best girlfriend Danielle and my mother-in-law among them, tout it as their favorite. Until last Friday night, that is.

I must admit to being intimidated enough by the idea of homemade tiramisu to have stayed away from it throughout my 5+ years of cooking experience. This was mostly because I'd heard (and knew from experience trying mediocre versions at various restaurants!) how easy it is to mess up. But BFFT also didn't help matters much when I told him about my dessert plans and he responded with, "Uh, you might want to sample it first before giving it to other people." Nor did a certain dinner party guest of ours who reacted by asking if I was sure I didn't want him to bring dessert. Well, in the face of all that doubt, I went ahead with a recipe I found in the November 2007 issue of Cooks Illustrated magazine. The key, as Danielle once said and I made sure to abide by, is to avoid soaking the ladyfingers too much. Otherwise you risk ending up with a pile of soggy mush, which thankfully didn't happen in this case.

Tiramisu (serves 10-12)


2 1/2 c strong brewed coffee, room temperature
1 1/2 T instant espresso (I used instant coffee and it turned out fine)
9 T dark rum (I used light rum; Bourbon would probably be tasty too)
6 large egg yolks
2/3 c sugar
1/4 t table salt
1 1/2 lb mascarpone cheese
3/4 c cold heavy cream
14 oz dried ladyfingers
3 1/2 T cocoa powder


1. Stir coffee, instant espresso, and 5 T rum in wide bowl or baking dish until espresso dissolves; set aside.

2. Using a hand mixer, beat yolks at low speed until just combined. Add sugar and salt and beat at medium-high speed until pale yellow, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula once or twice. Add remaining 4 T rum and beat at medium speed until just combined, 20-30 seconds; scrape bowl. Add mascarpone and beat at medium speed until no lumps remain, 30-45 seconds, scraping down bowl once or twice. Transfer mixture to large bowl and set aside.

3. In now-empty bowl (no need to clean), beat cream at medium speed until frothy, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Increase speed to high and continue to beat until cream holds stiff peaks, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes longer. Using rubber spatula, fold one-third of whipped cream into mascarpone mixture to lighten, then gently fold in remaining whiipped cream until no white streaks remain. Set mascarpone mixture aside.

4. Working one at a time, drop half of ladyfingers into coffee mixture, roll, remove, and transfer to 13 x 9 inch baking dish. (Do not submerge ladyfingers in coffee mixture; entire process should take no longer than 2-3 seconds per cookie.) Arrange soaked cookies in single layer in baking dish, breaking or trimming ladyfingers as needed to fit neatly into dish.

5. Spread half of mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers; use rubber spatula to spread mixture to sides and into corners of dish and smooth surface. Dust 2 T cocoa over mascarpone.

6. Repeat dipping and arrangement of ladyfingers; spread remaining mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers and dust with remaining 1 1/2 T cocoa. Wipe edges of dish with dry paper towel, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 6-24 hours. (I followed Danielle's advice to chill it overnight.)

Now that I've tasted the end product for myself, even I am inclined to think that there might be something special about tiramisu after all. For the record, BFFT said it was the best he'd ever had, as did at least one of our dinner party attendees. And the guest who "offered" to bring dessert ate two huge pieces! So I'm not being self-congratulatory here... indeed, I attribute most of that recipe's success to (1) not oversoaking the ladyfingers and (2) including lots of rum (either because the rum tasted good or we were too inebriated to notice that the tiramisu didn't!).

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