Pick me up
by Laura Silber
As a teenager, I would take the Amtrak train into Manhattan on weekends to visit my aunt, who introduced me to her East Side neighborhood’s Italian restaurants. After an upstate childhood of iceberg lettuce wedges draped with Thousand-Island dressing, the tricolore salads, al dente pastas and pungent cheeses I found in the city awakened my taste buds and completely enchanted me. And no matter how full I was, if tiramisu was on the dessert menu I couldn’t resist ordering it every single time. Creamy with cold layers of Marsala-scented mascarpone filling alternating with espresso-soaked ladyfingers or sponge cake, tiramisu instantly became one of my favorite desserts and remains so to this day.
Its name translates to “pick-me-up,” a reference to the espresso and ground chocolate in the recipe. The dessert itself, a classic in the Italian pastry repertoire, is a very recent invention. Though some food historians have tried to trace versions of it back through the centuries, there is no formal mention of it in Italian cookbooks prior to the early 1980s. It appears to have been created in a restaurant kitchen near Venice, in Treviso, and a very credible 2007 article in the Washington Post identifies the originator as pastry chef Carminantonio Iannaccone, who is now operating his own bakery, Piedigrotta, in Baltimore’s Little Italy.
I had made tiramisu in the past, but never with coaching from a reliable source, as my professional pastry background is in the French tradition. So before I began testing tiramisu recipes for this article, I called on my friend Gianni Iacono, the founder and chef of Farm Table, a private chef and specialty foods service in Hudson, New York (www.farmtableny.com). Gianni is from Italy, and his father’s bakery in Sicily was well known for its tiramisu. He now makes his family’s carefully guarded tiramisu recipe for Farm Table’s customers and for specialty markets in the Hudson area. Not incidentally, Gianni is married to my former private chef partner, Vineyard native Dawn Breeze, who runs Farm Table with him.
Without divulging his father’s baking secrets, Gianni was able to talk me through the subtleties and process of making a good tiramisu, with Dawn illuminating the details that defied translation from Italian to English. Marsala is the preferred alcohol, not rum. There should be twice as much heavy cream as mascarpone so that the cream filling is light and silky on the tongue. Although it is common to use raw eggs in the cream, they may be cooked into a zabaglione first, as some people will not eat raw eggs. (Gianni was trying to accommodate my inability to speak Italian, and we had a very funny and confusing exchange about “egg nog” before Dawn was able to clarify that he was generously attempting to translate zabaglione into English for me). The espresso flavor should burst into the mouth as the teeth pierce the cake layers, otherwise you have not saturated the crumb sufficiently. The crumb must be strong enough not to collapse from its espresso bath. A good cake is preferable to ladyfingers for this reason, and a well-made sponge is ideal. Although I also tried making the dessert with ladyfingers, I ultimately had to agree with Gianni that the texture of the sponge was a much better vehicle for the espresso.
I found a perfect crumb for the gluten-free sponge by starting with a base of brown rice flour, which has a pleasant, cornmeal-like grit, then adding potato starch and tapioca starch for tenderness. The beaten egg whites folded in at the end of the recipe give it enough air to pockmark the top during baking, which later provides the espresso even access to the interior of the cake without compromising the surface of it. The edge of the cake is slightly lacy and crisp, ensuring the structural integrity of the tiramisu even after sitting refrigerated for several days. The resulting tiramisu is really heavenly.