Julia Kolbert tells the little-known story of Tiramisù: The Perfect Italian Pandemic Pick-Me-Up
For all the extolling of their Mediterranean diet, the Italians do have a decidedly sweet tooth, especially at breakfast time. All those buttery brioches filled with jam, and their predilection for cake, Nutella and sugar-laden coffee are too much for this toast-and-marmite, builders’-cup-of-tea Brit.
But one does succumb to the luxuriously soft heaven on a plate which is called tiramisù – just now and then.
First things first. Tira-mi-sù literally means a pick-me-up. It is the sublimely transformed version of the traditional remedy administered to children in need of a little boost in households all over Italy, namely egg yolks whipped up with some sugar (called sbatudin after the Italian verb sbattere, to beat hard). If you didn’t already know the meaning, it will help you to remember the name. An erstwhile neighbour, a charismatic Colonel, once thanked my mother profusely at the end of a memorable dinner, for her excellent classic version of tiramisù, with the immortal words, “And thank you again, Jean, for the wonderful tettafui!”
But did you know that it was not found in Italian recipe books before the 1960s and the word only made it into Italian dictionaries in the 1980s?
I have just come across a divine summery variation on the classical version, which is made with coffee. For the readers of Italia! magazine, the recipe for your future king of desserts is at the end of this article. Italians are great traditionalists when it comes to food. But I have already had Italian friends beg me for this recipe. It’s that good.
Contention is high in Italy for the ownership rights of tiramisù as we know it. As often in Italy, the origins and the truth are shrouded in confusion and mystery, as are the real perpetrators of many crimes, but most clues lead to Treviso in the Veneto. There seems to be a bit of a showdown, according to the referees, between two chefs in Treviso in the 1960s: it is claimed that one copied the other but gave the same dish the different name of tiramisù. Then there is the couple who owned a hotel in the 1950s, in Tolmezzo, in Udine, where a menu contains the name. But there are references to its existence and enjoyment from the beginning of the 1800s, when a Madam of a brothel – again in Treviso – offered it to customers at the end of the evening. Did rectitude keep the racy origins of tiramisù under wraps? The Treviso dialect name was ‘Tireme su’, which was Italianized in the second half of the twentieth century.
All of the ingredients are quintessentially Italian. In every sensuously scrumptious spoonful you are making a giro d’Italia.
The base is composed of Savoy biscuits. So we begin in Piemonte, where the biscuits were conjured up for the Court of Savoy in the 14th century. Italians like to link their national heroes with culinary inventions. One version of the origin of tiramisù has to belong to Piemonte. Turin claims to have added their biscuits to the other ingredients to sustain Count Cavour, engaged upon the onerous task of unifying Italy. Perhaps this claim arises from their jealousy of London’s Garibaldi biscuits, named after the great soldier of the Unification.
For the classic version of tiramisù, these biscuits are dipped in strong espresso. The addition of a coffee liqueur such as Kahlua is optional and highly recommended. (Personal tip: for a sophisticated touch, try brandy.) Espresso is the national, essential daily pick-me-up. If any Italian walks into any bar in Italy and asks for un caffè, the barista will assume that he or she wants an espresso. Some prefer a macchiato, an espresso with a dash of milk (hot or cold, frothy or not frothy: these are serious matters). No Italian of my acquaintance can countenance the long americano. So the Savoy biscuit, linked to Cavour, is dipped in the espresso which unites ‘his’ unified Italy. And tiramisù has become a national dish, just as he would have wished. Bellissimo!
Then the creamy luxurious bit. The addition of mascarpone to the egg and sugar pick-me-up for bambini is the hallmark of tiramisù. Mascarpone is a Lombard creation. It is a fresh, short-lived thickened cream of milk, treated with acetic acid or lemon juice and worked at high temperature for a mere five to ten minutes. A well-known Italian journalist has attributed the name to an individual country farm, called Mascherpa, on the provincial border between Milan and Pavia. Naturally, he was born in Pavia.
The eggs, not being cooked, must be super-fresh. To test how fresh an egg is, one simply deposits it in a mug of salt water. The more it gravitates to the bottom, the fresher the egg. For this recipe, it should really rest on the bottom. To render the vital mascarpone mixture lighter and more abundant, one folds in egg-whites whipped into stiff peaks. The ubiquitous mountains of Italy join the national delight.
And now for the fresh and exquisite variation on the classic version. It is the nearest substance yet consumed which one could equate with the mythical ambrosia quaffed by the Greek gods as they lolled around on Mount Olympus scheming up plots to make mortals miserable. And it adds in Sicily to the few ingredients.
It is not overly sweet. Tiramisù should allow each ingredient to stand up and be counted. This recipe wins full marks. I like to think that the small but vital detail that mascarpone contains citric acid, makes the core ingredient of oranges a natural ally and a real winner.
Tiramisù all’Arancia (Orange Tiramisù)
6 dessertspoons icing sugar
1 pack of Savoy biscuits
4 dessertspoons rum
Mix the egg yolks with the sugar and beat them until they become foamy. Separately, beat the egg whites until they can form stiff peaks.
Whisk the mascarpone into the egg yolk and sugar mixture and then add the grated rind of two oranges. Fold in the egg whites.
In a rectangular container, start with a layer of the Savoy biscuits, dipped in the mixture of orange juice and rum. Cover the biscuits with the creamy mascarpone mixture. Repeat. Cover the last layer with a gentle sprinkling of cocoa powder if desired.