Often derided as a tired Italian classic, tiramisu’s history is shorter than one might think. Unlike other traditional Italian desserts, which boast rich culinary lineage, it is generally agreed that the conception of tiramisu dates back only as far as the 1970s (although its origin is hotly contested).
Unfortunately, bad tiramisu is two a penny in the UK – as food writer Felicity Cloake writes, it is often ‘soggy sponge and claggy, sickly sweet mousse, topped with furry layer of bitter cocoa powder’. However, done right, tiramisu can be nothing short of sublime. After all, coffee, mascarpone, alcohol – what’s not to like?
When I briefly lived in Florence in 2018, I made the sampling of tiramisu a competitive sport in its own right, and felt obliged to order one at virtually every restaurant I went to (strictly for research purposes, I might add). If nothing else, such gluttony taught me that there is no one ‘right’ way to do tiramisu – I personally see no issue with the multiple versions of tiramisu that are proffered across different countries and cultures. For instance, I have enjoyed both single and multi-layered versions and both are delicious. Similarly, I love the variation of types of alcohol used in different recipes; I prefer brandy and sherry, whereas my sister likes to spike the mascarpone with Irish cream, and I know that Nigella is prone to use Frangelico.
Having said this, whilst diversity can be welcomed in tiramisu, there are three things that are non-negotiable when making it:
The Biscuits – If you can, use savoiardi, which are the Italian version of ladyfingers or Boudoir biscuits. Crucially, they are drier and more crumbly and therefore are able to absorb the coffee/alcohol mixture without becoming soggy. They are available in large supermarkets and Italian delis (but can of course also be found online). I’ve only ever been able to find gluten free savoiardi in Italy, and so usually make my own using The Loopy Whisk’s brilliant recipe.
Soaking – One of the most common mistakes when making tiramisu is over-soaking the savoiardi, which often results in the biscuit layer resembling alcoholic baby food. The trick is to briefly dunk them in your coffee mixture long enough to absorb it (you don’t want the centre of the savoiardi to be pale and dry) but not so long that they begin to go mushy. It’s a fine art.
The Mascarpone Cream – This is the part of tiramisu that I feel most strongly about. The creamy element of the tiramisu must be made with mascarpone, eggs and sugar, and absolutely not – under any circumstances – whipped or double cream. I dismiss any tiramisu that doesn’t contain eggs. Whilst I had a stonkingly rich (and delicious) tiramisu once in Bologna that was enriched only with egg yolks, I do think that overall the egg white is needed to lighten the cream a little.
I recommend making this the day before you want to serve it, as it really benefits from chilling overnight in the fridge. This also makes an excellent breakfast – best eaten in private, safe from judgemental stares.
You will need a shallow serving dish.
- 125ml strong black coffee
- 4 x 15ml tablespoons brandy (or alcohol of your choice – rum is particularly good here)
- 2 x 15ml tablespoons sweet sherry
- 15-20 savoiardi biscuits (depending on the size of your dish)
- 500g mascarpone
- 2 large eggs, separated, plus one yolk
- 25g icing sugar
- 2 x tablespoons cocoa powder
- Combine the coffee with 2 x tablespoons of the brandy and pour into a shallow dish for dipping. Briefly dip each savoiardi biscuit into the coffee mixture on both sides, until it has absorbed it and is light brown in colour, but not turning into mush. Arrange the soaked savoiardi fingers in a single layer in a shallow serving dish.
- In a medium bowl, use an electric hand whisk to whisk the egg whites into soft peaks. In another large bowl, beat together the mascarpone, egg yolks, sugar, sherry and remaining brandy (no need to clean the beaters) until just combined – don’t overmix as this can cause the mixture to become too loose.
- Using a metal spoon, gently fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture, ensuring that there is no visible egg white left but being careful not to knock too much air out.
- Spoon the mascarpone mixture over the soaked biscuits and smooth with a spatula. Use a sieve to dust the tiramisu generously with cocoa powder, then cover and place in the fridge for at least 12 hours to firm up before serving. Remove the tiramisu from the fridge about an hour before you want to serve it.