I learned to make this delectable pudding when I was staying with friends in southern Italy. Margarita and Vincenzo often cooked together – he with a lot of fuss and she with none whatsoever. One morning Vincenzo announced that he would be making pasta with mussels for our supper. Margarita added quietly that she would run up a tiramisu for pudding. “It will be amazing,” Vincenzo said about his dish. “You won’t believe it,” he added matter of factly. None of us doubted him. Much of the day was spent procuring goodies, and our afternoon on the beach was cut short so that several of us could be drafted in to scrub a couple of sinks worth of mussels. All day, led by Vincenzo, we talked of nothing else but the forthcoming evening meal.
Vincenzo’s pasta with mussels was delicious. The climax of the cooking was when he cooked the pasta as if it were risotto, in just enough mussel stock for each piece of spaghetti absorb and cook to perfection, so not a noodle needed to be drained. This required much stirring of much pasta, precision timing and, as Vincenzo kept reminding us, nerves of steel.
The pasta was all the better for it. There was no question about that. “But not that much better,” Jay, another guest, said quietly the next morning. “It was still spaghetti with mussels like we had in the little cafe by the beach. For all the talk…” he trailed off and seemed caught in deep thought. I knew what he was thinking. “Margarita’s tiramisu?” he said, his voice brightening. “which by the way may be the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten, is there any more of that by any chance or did we eat it all already?” We had eaten it all already.
When I asked Margarita about her tiramisu she admitted that it was a special recipe passed down through generations of women in her home town, and taught to her very precisely. She then taught it to me, which involved making it again, which meant that we ate it for breakfast and tiramisu, it turns out, works as a breakfast dish. There are two tricks to Margerita’s version. One is using the right kind of biscuits and those aren’t ladies’ fingers or savoiradi biscuits, but a much thinner, more delicate biscuit called a Pavesani. You can get these inexpensive biscuits, not at specialist delis or posh food halls, but at any Italian grocer, or online.
The second trick is in the timing. Each biscuit must be soaked in its coffee and liqueur soup for four seconds on each side.
“What do I do if I can’t find Pavesani biscuits in England,” I asked Margarita, before I knew how easy it was to find them once you knew where to look.
“Can I use savoirdi biscuits instead? You see them everywhere.”
“Well,” she said. “You could. But the timing is completely different for those biscuits. And you will make a quite different tiramisu.” She wouldn’t be drawn further on the matter.
- Serves: 8-10
- Preparation time: The tiramisu will take about four hours to set in the fridge, but it is best made the night before. Use a 35 x 22cm dish.
- 180 grams sugar
- 5 good eggs
- 500g mascarpone
- 1 pot of strong coffee
- 3-4 tablespoons of brandy or, if you can get it, an Italian coffee liquor called Caffe Borghetti
- About 300g of Pavesini biscuits – the exact amount depends on the size of your dish. You will need to buy, though not use entirely, 2 packets.
- Grated chocolate or chocolate flakes, or at a push, good cocoa powder.
- Separate the eggs.
- Beat the sugar with the egg yolks, preferably with an electric whisk or in a mixer until the mixture turns pale.
- Add the mascarpone, one 250g packet at a time, to the egg and sugar mix, and beat again. Add two tablespoons of coffee and 1-2 tablespoons of alcohol and continue blending ’til the mixture is smooth and blended. It will be a beautiful pale chestnut colour. Taste it. You can always add more coffee or alcohol, but it shouldn’t taste overpoweringly of either.
- Add a pinch of salt to the egg white and beat them until stiff peaks form.
- Add the whisked egg whites to the mascarpone, egg, and sugar mix and beat for a few minutes until the mixture becomes runny like a thick cream (don’t worry about deflating the air out of the egg whites: you don’t need it.)
- Pour the coffee into a flat container and add 1-2 tablespoons of alcohol. I use Caffe Borghetti, which you can only get at very good liquor shops. Ask about in any Italian deli and they may well be able to point you in the right direction. It packs less of a punch than brandy, so you can use a little more of it sometimes as much as three or four tablespoons if your coffee is very strong. Just keep tasting.
- Line your dish with a layer of the cream mix – not more than a third of it.
- Soak each Pavesani biscuit for 4 seconds on each of its two sides, and lay them out in neat horizontal rows on top of the cream. Try to leave as few gaps as possible. You may need to cut a few of the biscuits in half to get into the corners of the dish.
- Cover the layer of biscuits with a second layer of the cream, then cover this layer of cream with another layer of soaked biscuits, only this time lay then out in vertical rows.
- Cover with a final layer of the cream.
- Let sit in fridge for a minimum of 4 hours. Overnight is best.
- Immediately before serving cover the tiramisu in a thin layer of grated dark chocolate. If you are using cocoa instead of grated chocolate, use it sparingly. Too much creates a powdery finish, which makes you cough when you eat it.