January (Gennaio) the symbolic month of fresh starts is also the month when we could use a little pick-me-up after the happy hustle of the holidays, therefore I thought I would recycle my “Tiramisù” column.
As 2013 begins, my little corner of the world, the “Italian Connection” column (since Fall 1977) has been comfortably ensconced in the pages of L’Italo-Americano for nearly thirty-six years (prior to the merger of L’Italo-Americano with L’Eco d’Italia in January 1980 my column was aka News from Northern California).
Through the years, I have spotlighted subjects from A to Z (Alberobello to Zabaglione) but the column that has generated the most mail and reprint requests since it first appeared, Sept. 27, 1992, was my column on “Tiramisù”, which was prompted by a letter from a Reader who asked:
Dear Italian Connection:
What exactly is this “tiramisù” dessert I’ve been finding on restaurant menus lately? Where did it originate? I’ve looked in a dozen Italian cookbooks, and it is nowhere to be found.
Cara M.R.: I know all about “Tiramisù” because several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting longtime L’Italo-Americano editor Mario Trecco’s sister Idelma and her husband Vittorio Tortella in San Francisco. They told me that they owned a pastry shop and bar in Pescatina (Verona). Tiramisù was inspired by a tired customer and a pastry baker and his wife in Treviso (Venice) simply doing their best to provide good old-fashioned customer service.
I asked Idelma what was the “specialty of the house”, so to speak, and she said: ‘Tiramisù’. As I wanted to know what it was, she told me that Vittorio, her husband, who is the pasticciere (pastry baker) of the house, knew the whole, true story. And he began: “The first Tiramisù was made quite by accident. “A group of businessmen concluded a long day of having a dinner in the restaurant of Hotel Carletto in Treviso, some 20 miles north of Venice. I knew the chef of that restaurant; he was also a good pastry baker.
At the end of the dinner, the group of men asked the chef, ‘Now we need a nice dessert to pick us up!’ (the Italian words used were per tirarci sù). “The chef did not have any ready made dessert, but he said, ‘I’ll prepare something for you in no time!’ “He put together some mascarpone (a kind of Italian butter-like ricotta), yolk of eggs and sugar; he inserted some savoiardi cookies (Lady Fingers) soaked in coffee-liquor of low alcoholic content, and he served it in a cup, after spraying some whipped cream on top, together with a sprinkle of cocoa powder. “Before long, this tasty treat, “Tiramisù, was being duplicated all over Italy.”
American food editors who had visited Venice were excitedly telling their American readers about their latest Italian dessert discovery, Tiramisù, and describing it as a “simple-to-make luxurious Italian dessert, consisting to alternating layers of mascarpone cheese and Lady Fingers delicately soaked in espresso, with a hint of Marsala or liqueur.” Upscale Italian restaurants from the Atlantic to the Pacific suddenly sprouted Tiramisù versions for their menus. Unfortunately, some efforts were more “let me down” than “pick me up”. But practice makes perfect, and some local versions of Tiramisù are really quite good.
The reason you cannot find a good Tiramisù recipe in most cookbooks is that it is not an old Italian specialty with a long heritage, but a relatively new one, inspired by a tired customer and a pastry baker and his wife in Treviso, who were simply doing their best to provide good old-fashioned customer service. Since you won’t find it in older cookbooks, here is a recipe for Tiramisù that I cut off a package of Lady Finger biscuits. You can substitute soft cream cheese or ricotta for the mascarpone cheese if you cannot find it easily, but the quality will suffer. Add a little liqueur to this, if you like.
Tiramisù (Makes 4 to 6 servings)
7 oz. champagne biscuits or lady fingers (savoiardi) 7 oz. mascarpone (ricotta or cream cheese) 2 eggs, separated 2 oz. sugar 1 cup of espresso or very strong, black coffee Cocoa for dusting Separate the eggs; beat egg yolks and sugar together into smooth creamy consistency. Add the mascarpone cheese and fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Soak the Lady Fingers in the coffee. Line the bottom of an oblong mold or pan with half the Lady Fingers and spread over half the cream mixture. Cover the remaining Lady Fingers and rest of the cream mixture. Dust top with cocoa. Chill until served. I suggest you use a package of Matilde Vincenzi champagne Lady Finger biscuits imported from Giovanni Lupatoto, Verona, if you can find them. Since 1990, Tiramisù has hit the big time, even being demonstrated by Nick Stellino on Oprah’s TV program in a low-calorie version. I think they used egg whites and reduced whipping cream. I’ll share the recipe with you when I find it. In the meantime, do your own thing. I like mine heavy on the soaked-with-espresso Lady Fingers, and topped with ground chocolate chips, cocoa and coffee beans.
January, looking back… January was not part of the early 10-month Roman calendar. January was said to have been added by the legendary King Numa Pompillius to honor Janus, the Latin deity of beginnings and ends. January 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei, Italian physicist, focusing his telescope on Jupiter discovers the four largest moons of that planet, lending further evidence against the dogma of an Earth-centered universe. January 14, 1858, Felice Orsini, an Italian patriot outraged over France’s role in suppressing Italy’s independence and unification, attempts to assassinate French Emperor Louis Napoleon by throwing a bomb at his carriage. Eight bystanders were killed, but Emperor Louie was unharmed. Orsini, sentenced to the guillotine, joined the growing list of martyrs for Italian freedom.