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It’s the one Italian dessert everyone knows, a difficult-to-resist marriage of sugared mascarpone, strong espresso coffee, and sponge biscuits, made in some heaven where calories are not an issue.
But how ‘traditional’ is it? Not very, according to Italian food historians. The first recorded use of the word tiramisù (literally ‘pick me up’) to refer to this type of confection dates back only to 1980, according to the Sabatini Coletti dictionary of the Italian language.
It’s difficult to disentangle the tiramisù facts from the tiramisù legends, but the most reliable origin story assigns the creation of the dessert to a pastry chef called Roberto ‘Loli’ Linguanotto, who in 1970 began working at Le Beccherie, a restaurant in his home-town of Treviso in the Veneto region. Encouraged by the owner to invent an original dessert that drew on local confectionery traditions and ingredients, Loli came up with the tiramisù or ‘pick me up’ – originally spelled ‘tiramesù’, in trevigiano dialect.
There are any number of variations on the original recipe. The version that executive chef Gennaro Russo serves in Le Sirenuse’s La Sponda restaurant is served in a glass, and substitutes cream for egg yolks in the sauce; still not exactly light, perhaps, but a little less of a cholesterol bomb. One thing Gennaro definitely recommends is to make the biscuit sponge yourself: it will always be better, and healthier, than industrially-produced savoiardi or ladyfingers.
For the biscuit sponge:
180g fine white flour (Italian ‘00’ quality or similar)
For the cream:
500ml (2 cups, 16 fl. oz.) strong espresso-style coffee
300g single cream
40g white sugar
5g Marsala dessert wine
cocoa powder for sprinkling
First, preferably the day before, make the biscuit sponge. With an electric or hand whisk, beat the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is foamy and aerated. Then, using a metal spoon, fold in the sieved flour and mix well. Pour into a greased square 25cm/10-inch baking tray and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (350°F) for ten minutes. Remove (it should be a uniform golden-brown) and leave to cool.
Now turn your attention to the cream. In a large bowl, mix together the mascarpone, cream, sugar and marsala, stirring well to amalgamate all the ingredients.
With a circular cutter, cut out eight rounds of the biscuit sponge, each of around 8cm or 3 inches in diameter – the exact size will depend on the diameter of the glasses or stemmed bowls you use. Let these sponge discs soak in the coffee for a few seconds, then arrange in each of the glasses with a sponge layer topped by a large dessert-spoonful of the cream, spread out almost to the edge of the glass, followed by another biscuit sponge disc, followed by another generous dollop of the cream. Once all these tiramisù ‘sandwiches’ are assembled, sprinkle cocoa powder over the top, add a dark chocolate medallion if you so wish, and chill in the fridge for at least a couple of hours before serving.