Was there ever a dessert more romantic than tiramisu? After all, it translates to “pick me up” from Italian. The name could allude to the caffeine hit and sugar rush that inevitably follows each bite of this luscious pudding. But I prefer to think of it more as a tender plea as I walk by a bakery window and catch its line of sight.
I was introduced to tiramisu somewhat late in life by my closest college chum Ashley Gambino. Attribute it to her cultural heritage or plain magic touch, but boy could she whip up a mean bowl of tiramisu. Naturally, I went straight to the expert for this article, and her take is that it comes down to the perfect ratios of coffee to chocolate and mascarpone to ladyfingers.
You see, a tiramisu is relatively easy to assemble. I say assemble because few people actually bother to bake the ladyfingers (more technically called savoiardi) from scratch, considering they are widely available in stores. The sponge cake is drizzled with enough espresso and rum to soak through without over-saturating and topped with a dreamy mixture of mascarpone cheese, egg yolks and sugar. Two identical layers are then finished off with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings, depending on one’s indulgence level.
Sounds simple enough, right? Yet so many versions miss the mark. A weak espresso can be the chief disappointment. The flavour needs to be concentrated enough to cut through all that sweetness and richness. This is especially crucial in Doha, where the rum is typically omitted to make the dish more accessible.
Secondly is the mascarpone, which under no circumstances should be replaced. The Lombard cheese is admittedly pricier than its cream cheese cousin, prompting some restaurants to opt for the latter with a bit of sour cream mixed in. Although the substitution represents cost-saving ingenuity, it results in an inferior product. Every time.
Some are also tempted to add whipped cream. Please don’t. While tiramisu can be loosely described as an Italian trifle, it needs to be treated differently. Whipped cream detracts from the flavour and changes the consistency.
Finally, there’s the issue of presentation. Tiramisu works best when prepared in a square tin, ensuring that every slice and every spoonful has the exact proportion of custard to cake — again, this issue of ratio creeps up. It is becoming more common to find individual portions of tiramisu served in cocktail glasses and funky shaped bowls; however, it almost always means that the elements are never quite in perfect proportion. One bite could yield solely mascarpone cream while another too much biscuit.
I love a good tiramisu. Not tiramisu chocolates. Not tiramisu ice cream. And certainly not green-tea infused tiramisu. Just an honest-to-goodness version you’d find in nonna’s kitchen with the right ingredients in perfect balance — my idea of a sweet pick-me-up worth picking up.
** A version of this article appeared in Qatar Happening – Februrary 2014 **