Cook what you know.
A good motto to live by when entertaining; one I try to uphold. This is especially true for me when it comes to dessert. A course often overlooked as I scramble to prepare all of the others. Simple is good! Something in my repertoire and something that requires little to no baking is even better. For me, that could mean tiramisu. My recipe for tiramisu dates back to 1998 from my first journal, yet I was making it before I started documenting my kitchen, uh-ventures. It was my thing. I could always woo people with my tiramisu; my rendition was golden (and it was the 90’s after all, where it even stole a few lines in “Sleepless in Seattle”). Journal #1
Okay, so my rendition of Buongusto’s tiramisu was golden. I came to acquire their rendition specifically from watching (on many occasions) the pastry chef at the long-time defunct, Buongusto Ristorante on Queen Anne, make this dessert for dinner service. It was often late at night, after hours (because it needed to be prepared a day in advance). I would watch him work his magic while he told me about the ghosts that haunted the kitchen of the old house in which the restaurant resided… I watched, I learned, I repeated (on a scale more compatible to our small Queen Anne Hill duplex kitchen). It became my go-to birthday (or special occasion) cake. I hadn’t made it in years. The entry
Facing the quickly approaching birthday affair we were hosting at our house for my Mother, it seemed appropriate to make this as a birthday cake. After all, spaghetti and meatballs had been her dinner request and tiramisu seemed like the right thing to make.
I made a very bad birthday cake.
I don’t know that I should apologize about it, because I was not actually making a cake. As I said, I was making tiramisu. For my Mom’s birthday (she just turned…well, we were forewarned not to say which birthday it was).
Bad birthday cake nonetheless.
I am blaming it on the eggs. I cracked open the 7 perfectly large, brown eggs slated for this effort, but was rewarded with a meager bit of yolk in each of them. I had virtually 1/2 the amount of yolk that I should have had. However, this did not stop me from proceeding, diligently following each bit of scribble in my dog-eared and tattered journal.
Rather than a thickened, creamy cloud that should have spread loosely over the top of each layer of ladyfingers, I had what “spread” with the consistency of buttermilk. I added another 8oz of mascarpone, along with two more egg yolks, (happily for them, the whites were cooked for Buddy and Ginger) and I took my hand blender to it again. Ironically, it was even thinner than what I had before, but it was midnight and I had to move on.
Next, I slopped down a layer of this wet cream, topped it with the first layer of fingers, and poured, as evenly as I could, more of the cream over top. It disappeared into the pores of the fingers but I topped it with the next layer of fingers nonetheless. Now it was time for a little, big chill, overnight, in the fridge. I learned to always make this a day ahead. Perhaps the new day would show a fluffier reward?
The new day did not reward me with fluff. Instead, the big chill looked like a big shake. I should clarify this; it was like the aftermath of a BIG shake, like the kind from a big dog that was left to do their business out in the rain. There was a puddle of cream slopping out the edges causing a very unsightly mess, and a completely exposed, un-topped layer of cake. I mopped it up from the sides with a paper towel. Cake sitting on the counter, I stood over it, deliberating on what would be my next move. Mom was hanging about the kitchen now and I tried to hide the misery under a wrap of foil until I could formulate a good plan. Family would be arriving shortly and I was still up to my elbows in mess. Messy kitchen, messy clothes, messy hair. Luckily, in my frustration at the state of the cream the previous night, I did not use it all, deciding to wait on topping the last layer until the next day. Instead, I held it in it’s glass container overnight to see if it would thicken. It did not.
I had one more 8oz tub of mascarpone and a fresh batch of eggs (because I anticipated making a fix and asked Tom to pick some up at the store). What I did not have was time, to start over. Into the Blendtec my extra batter went, along with two more egg yolks. Yup, you guessed it, the result was thinner yet again. I thought that surely, the egg yolks plus high Blendtec velocity would produce the equivalent texture of heavy whipped cream. I was wrong.
So in desperation, I took that (newly purchased) last tub of mascarpone and emptied all but a few spoonfuls into the Blendtec container after transferring the batter back to it’s glass dish. I then added a modest amount of cream batter back in with the mascarpone, say 3/4 cup. Whiz, whiz, whiz…but not enough in the container to blend it well so I dug in with a rubber spatula and beat it around a little until it was finally, a lovely, little thick bit of mascarpone cream. Yes, key word here is little (as in just enough to do the trick, but modest enough to leave exposed ladyfingers). I spread it over top anyways and then dusted it with carob power to cover the inadequate amount of cream. Not too shabby. Not sexy, but not shabby indeed. A few clever birthday candles, a dimly lit room, a festive table filled with balloons, flowers and dinner aftermath…we had a birthday-worthy cake. It didn’t hurt that my sister-in-law had also donned the table with a double-tiered plate of Italian dolce (cannoli, amaretto cookies and biscotti). Added a few perfectly-frothed cups of espresso and we were in business.
Sometimes, you can cook what you know, but you find you need to get reacquainted once more. Sometimes even the best-laid plans require a change of plan and often times, they work out just fine, nonetheless.
I have eaten many versions of tiramisu, some dense and thick, others light and fluffy. There can be espresso or not, booze or not, but there really should be both. It is important to use high-quality ingredients (as it always is), but with this dish even more-so due to the minimal flavors that are brought together to sing. A good, thick espresso will provide a deep flavor and a gentle “pick me up”. For the booze, a nice brandy is what I prefer, mixed with a small amount of Kahlúa and Meyer rum. Some people use only rum or (gasp), no booze at all. The booze is not meant to overwhelm the flavor but to add a nice sweetness and rich complexity that without would be apparent if missing. I prefer the fluffy over the dense, indicating to me, that it has been delicately constructed with fresh eggs, whites whipped separate from the yolk and not replaced by a commercially convenient concoction. The ladyfingers should be dipped quickly, not soaked, in the espresso and booze mixture so as to keep them from becoming soggy. Most importantly, as mentioned earlier, it needs time to chill, preferably overnight, to allow the flavors to connect and the cream to firm. The result should be a perfectly balanced flavor of coffee and cream with chocolate and spice. The texture should be soft and fluffy, leaving your palette cleansed and your stomach less than over-indulged.
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup Turbino sugar
8 oz Mascarpone
7 egg whites
1 cup espresso
1/8 cup Brandy, plus a drizzle for the cream mixture
2 TB Kahlúa
1/4 cup Meyer rum
Several grates of fresh nutmeg (or about 1/8 tsp grated)
Cocoa or carob powder
2 packages of ladyfingers
In a large bowl, whip together the yolks and sugar with a mixer until they are pale yellow. Pour in a few drips of brandy and add the mascarpone. Mix until blended.
In a separate bowl, mix the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Pour the egg whites mixture into the cream and stir to blend. It should be stiff enough to thickly coat the back of a spoon.
In another bowl, combine the espresso and the booze. Set out a large platter with shallow sides or a sheet pan. Quickly dunk the ladyfingers into the espresso mix, one side at a time. Lay each one down on the platter or pan, forming rows until you have a single layer.
Top with half of the cream, spreading it evenly over the first layer. Sprinkle with carob or cocoa powder then repeat the process again with another layer.
Carefully cover, trying not to let the cover touch the surface of the cream (rigid aluminum foil works well). Chill for at least 8 hours. It is best to make 12-24 hours in advance.
If it is an occasion cake, I make it directly on the platter since it will not transfer well other than to individual plates when serving. Candles look festive and espresso served with is a must (at least for me).
When I turned 40, I had a small outdoor party and my brother, Scott, gave me this hat. Under (slight) protest, I wore it that night and then passed the torch to the next family member up on the birthday docket. It became a tradition, passing the hat from one to the next for their birthdays. I even took it on the plane to Hawai‘i one year and made Tom wear it for most of the flight on his birthday (he wasn’t under protest, the photos show him with a glass of Champagne and guava in his hand). There is a little pocket on the inside of the hat and I had grandiose plans of each person leaving a picture of themselves wearing the hat, and tucking it into the pocket before sending it down the line. Now that it is x years (I’m not talking either) later, I wish that we had done that; it would have been lovely to see them all now. My Mom, under more than slight protest, did wear the hat too. She looked marvelous. “No pictures, please“.