Here’s a confession: I don’t really like sweets. Anything with too much sugar is a real turn off. Pop Tarts, doughnuts, cakes caked with fondant, hard candies, even flavored yoghurt bothers me. It just doesn’t taste good. These foods, while delicious are overwhelming, They tend to coat my whole mouth in one single even sensation- not a flavor, just a strange numbness. This doesn’t mean that I live a sad boring life (though my college roommate whose daily diet of Skittles and Sour Patch Kids would beg to differ). I love ice cream but I tend to like darker flavors, dark chocolates, essentially things where there is complexity. Where the sugar has to compete with other elements in order to have any kind of representation.
This realization, or rather development in my personal palette led to me to Tiramisu: a cake based dessert that blends a silky cheese, sugar, alcohol, and coffee into a layered concoction of happiness and satiety. Tiramisu and I have a long history that weaves with various facets of my life: past romantic relationships, travels, and a start of my culinary endeavors. In the ninth grade, I watched a movie called No Reservations. A mediocre rom-com starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Aaron Eckhart, where the actress plays a head chef with skeletons in her cupboard and Eckhart plays her ambitious sous chef. While the story is not really that memorable, there was a scene that I loved. Eckhart and Jones are in an apartment dimly lit with candles with the chef rushing to leave before the scene becomes more intimate. The sous chef stops her while simultaneously opening his fridge and offering Tiramisu to which Jones has a quite retort, “I am not a dessert person.” This cuts to them on the floor of his drawing room taking generous servings of the decadent dish and with Jones saying, “I guess I was wrong.” I loved this scene because of its simplicity. The cake wasn’t plated beautifully. In fact, it was a square plastic tupperware, but there was passion in the food that converted into passion for Jones.
High school Archit, who was in the thick of love with a beautiful high school girl, found this as his relationship mecca. Something to elevate the way he shows his love through a personal gesture that while was unique was also genuinely simple. Sadly, I was never really able to make this dessert for beautiful high school girl and something that may or may not change anytime soon.
Fast forward to my first winter back home from college, I saw the movie again and this time I decided to give tiramisu a try. Like a true aspiring student of the liberal arts I embarked on deep research into finding the best recipes. After referencing what seemed like days of delicious recipe mining, I created my own recipe which was a convoluted hybrid of Martha Stewart, Deeba Rajpal, and Sanjeev Kapoor’s concoction. I got the ingredients and commenced towards creating a true mess. The egg whites split, the sugar never dissolved, the coffee was so hot that the ladyfingers melted, and to top it off a six hour power cut converted my pastry into a chunky milkshake. I gave up. The ingredients were too expensive, especially to make something sweet. What changed this perspective was my trip to Italy where I loaded up on as much Tiramisu as I could consume until my blood turned to coffee flavored sugar. I tried concoctions made with a sponge cake, white chocolate instead of dark, with rum instead of marsala wine, and what I thought was the best of them all, a gelato with chunks of rum soaked cake. These variations gave me the hope that unlike French, Italian food can have variations. You can make it the way you want, a positive push that allowed me to give this dish another try. By this time, I had been cooking other things as well so a general knowledge about the kitchen helped me as well. I made many variations myself but the one I share below is the culmination of a lot of trial and error. It retains a sweet taste but what overpowers you is the flavor of coffee and dark rum that is succeeded with the fresh aroma of lemon achieved through zest between the layers.
Food tends to always have a history. Tiramisu has an amazing story of its own but I like the story it weaves in my life. At the end of the day, that is what I think of when I cook: The ability to share my stories with people. And hopefully with the right people.
Give this recipe a try and let me know what you think of it!
Serving Size: Should serve a party of 12 (idk weight)
4 large egg whites
5 egg yolks
250 g plain mascarpone cheese at room temp (in India, Flander’s makes the best version)
1/2 cup caster sugar
4 shots of fresh espresso
24 semi sweet Italian ladyfingers
4 tablespoons dark rum (old rum is best)
1 tablespoon of lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence or seeds of 1 vanilla pod
sifted cocoa powder
Start by slow cooking the egg yolks. In a saucepan, boil water. Place another saucepan above it. The pan on above should be slightly bigger in order not sink in the water. Add yolks and sugar. Whisk until the sugar has mixed completely. It should take about 3 minutes. Don’t over cook. Once mixed set aside to cool.
Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until you achieve stiff peaks. This takes some time. About 7 minutes but also depends on the weather and size of the eggs. Don’t over beat or the protein in the egg might split.
Mix the now cooled yolks with the cheese. Mix well and add vanilla essence. Once mixed slowly incorporate the whites. Be gentle here. The idea is to incorporate the lightness of whites.
In a shallow bowl, add coffee and rum and then dip each ladyfinger. Place half the lady fingers as one layer. Then add half of the cheese and egg mix. Add half the zest and then follow the same steps for another layer. Once set, wrap in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 2 hours, or the fridge for 4 hours before eating.