Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Fat Italian Part II: The Zabagli-- err,Tiramisù

lady fingers soaked in coffee and Marsala

I don't know what made me believe that it was a good idea to try to make tiramisù with a sick five-month old child and an impending family visit hanging over my head. Roman was in fine finicky form, the house was still only half-way decent, and I had about a million other things to take care of in my half-over day, and yet, I decided to increase the level of chaos in my life by making a somewhat time-consuming dessert that involves lots of dirty dishes, lots of machinery, and lots of messy mixtures. (Hey, you only live once right?)

I was about 45 minutes in to my method. Roman had been ok so far, though he was starting to fuss and punch his teddy bear (never a good sign), and I only had an hour before the dry cleaner closed. I was feverishly whipping the cream to put into the zabaglione and I was, admittedly, getting frantic - but I kept telling myself: only a few steps left before I could start assembly!

I finished whipping with the mixer, grabbed the glass bowl full of cream and started to run to the kitchen island to mix the zabaglione, neglecting the fact in a moment of cranial-gas that I did NOT let go of the plugged in mixer. Yes. I was immediately yanked back by the mixer's chord - cartoon style - and dropped the glass bowl. In slow motion I watched as the glass shattered, the cream
splattered, and Roman immediately began to wail. Grande.

a whippedy mess

I had no shoes on and was surrounded by glass shards and covered in whipped cream. Amazingly enough, Roman seemed kind of amused. Realizing that was the last of my cream, I, for one insane moment, asked myself if there was any way I could salvage some of it for the zabaglione and if anyone would notice. Then I slapped myself and surrendered to the reality that not only would I have to run out and buy more cream, I would also have to sweep and mop the entire kitchen and deal with my now hysterical and neglected sick baby before cleaning the rest of the house. Ah, the things we do for culinary dalliances. :)

* * *

In my last post I recounted how I was overcome with culinary rapture upon tasting the Fat Italian's tiramisù and how said rapture prompted me to re-learn to properly to make my own. But first, a bone to pick:

The Picking of a Bone On the
Subject of Pronuncing Tiramisù:

As you may or may not have heard, tiramisù is a running together of a couple of Italian words that translate loosely into "pull / throw me up." The accent is on the last syllable, the "u" and evokes an exclamatory, metaphorical pick-me-up thanks to the chocolate and espresso in the recipe.

I find it really annoying when people mispronounce the name. I'm not sure why besides my tendency to obsess over language and have an admittedly unreasonable sense of entitlement to correct peoples' pronunciation in any language I happen to speak. So get it right or pay the price. There are others like me lurking around this crazy world.

* * *

Having lived in Italy for several years, I'd been taught before, but never bothered to really commit the recipes to memory or write them down, because as a teenager, everyone has something better to do than cook dessert. But now, as an adult, I regretted those fleeting moments of puerile (or should I say "puellile?") forgetfulness. I needed to find a good recipe for tiramisù - one that approximated Fabio's - and it wasn't going to be easy. But nothing great is every easy is it? :) I perused the internet for longer than is appropriate for a woman with a 5 month old baby, and finally came across three versions I thought I could combine to my liking (this one, this one, and this one).

They all had different things I did and didn't like about them but they all helped me refine what I thought would make the ideal Tira. With these things in mind, I set out to create a delicious dessert to serve to my mom and step-dad who would soon be visiting us in London. It was time to quell the zabaglione-eating beast lurking within.

* * *

Top 3 Ingredients for an Ideal Tiramisù
mess included.

3. The Individual Serving Cup.
One of the things that always put me off about tira is having to cut it out of a giant rectangular pan. If the zabaglione-to-lady-finger ratio is to my liking, you always end up with a ridiculous, soggy, soppy mess on the plate. No perfect little square with dusted cocoa neatly sprinkled - not unless you're some kind of magical tiramisu wizard.

The first recipe I mentioned offered up the possibility of individual cup servings, something I'd been toying with, but feared because I didn't know how to change ingredient proportions. Suddenly it was very possible, and opened up a plethora of non-messy, classy-looking serving options that I knew were right up my alley.

2. The Dipping Alcohol of Choice.
Apparently -- and I don't know if I buy this because there's much disagreement on the origins of this dessert -- the original Tiramisù was aimed at children and old people and therefore did not contain alcohol. Sounds pre-tty darn suspicious to me knowing the penchant Italians have for their tasty liqueurs. If they're giving babies wine to try as soon as they're able to eat, why fuss over a couple of tablespoons of coffee liqueur? But I digress...

The Epicurious recipe and the Giada recipe both brought to my attention the fact that as far as tira goes, there does not seem to be any kind of consensus with regards to what alcohol should be used for dipping the lady fingers. Yes, you use coffee, good Italian espresso ideally. But beyond that you generally either combine some kind of coffee liqueur or other alcoholic beverage with the dipping coffee or drizzle it over the lady fingers as you layer the dessert.

Let's examine the choices:

Some say Tia Maria, a Jamaican drink, is best, but personally I can't see how a caribbean coffee liqueur could possibly be authentic. Others advocate for Kahlua, the Mexican version of Tia Maria, older, better known and also, like Tia Maria, owned by that pesky own-it-all Pernod Ricard, this coffee liqueur offers up the same syrupy sweet, coffee-vanilla taste as Tia Maria, but none of the Italian essence I was looking for. Others still suggest rum. While I'm a big lover of rum in desserts, I simply couldn't pass up the last option offered up: Marsala wine. Sicilian, sweet and delicious - it's authentic, a staple in my cupboard, and a great way to spike the lady fingers. If you don't have Marsala in your cupboard -- what the hell is wrong with you? Go get some! RUN!

1. The Zabaglione. Zabaglione. Zabaglione.
If all this yummy-talk isn't a good enough reason for you to get off your toosh and make tiramisù then ZABAGLIONE! is. Not only is it the funnest word to pronounce ever (equal only to besciamella!) - and it's pronounced ZABAHYOWN if you're American, ZABAHLEEOHNEH if you're Italian - but it's also the secret to the delightful deliciousness of tiramisù.

Zabaglione is a sweet, impossibly light, Italian custard, thought to have originated in my favorite Italian city, Venice. It was originally made by beating air into raw egg yolks (though I think people generally do it over a baine marie now) combined with honey, sweet wine and whipped cream or beaten egg whites. These days it is made with sugar instead of honey, and Marsala or prosecco instead of the original sweet wines from Cyprus imported through Venice.

hand-whipping the zabaglione:
the workout to justify the indulgence

Whatever wine or sweetener you choose, I am confident that you will agree that a better more satisfying custard is hard to come across. Zabaglione has a mildly sweet, soft, smooth texture that is anything but gooey and gelatinous (unlike most custards). You won't find this stuff slapped on nilla wafers or poured over a cheap sticky toffee pudding. Traditionally served over fresh figs (they're in season - go for it!), it is far too delicate a flavor for that. Plus, it's too much work to waste on a sloppy product of pop-culture.

Making Zabaglione, like most labors of love, takes a little more effort than the average modern-day semi-homemade deal. Sure, you can pull the mixer out of the cupboard for the job and whizz it out in 2 minutes, but why do that when you can, in true Italian-casalinga style slave over a semi-hot baine marie and whip it by hand? :) Hey, if nothing else, you can truthfully complain about the work and sacrifice it took to put dessert on the table. Anything for a couple of extra brownie tiramisu points, right? :)

* * *

This Fatty's Version of the
Fat Italian's

Serves 6

the art of tiramisu-ing

So you've decided to try out this recipe - no doubt you've shopped around for other ones too. Well, I hope my couple of pointers have convinced you already that mine is head and tail above the rest.

Other thoughts: I tried making my zabaglione with egg whites and then another time with cream - the egg whites give it too much of an eggy taste. I do not recommend it. The cream, on the other hand, gives it a subtle, much lighter richness. If you're a cream lover like me, you'll understand.
Also, get good semi-sweet cocoa powder for this. It gives the whole thing a more grown-up taste and cuts the sweetness of the zabaglione.

Lastly, if you're looking for something that will impress without TOO much fuss, this dessert is perfect for a dinner party. It has to be made ahead of time and chilled and the flavors actually meld better the longer it is kept in the fridge (though I wouldn't recommend keeping it for longer than 3 days). It is easy enough to dust fresh cocoa powder on each cup when you're ready to hand them out and nobody will be the wiser.

Serve with freshly made espresso (Illy, of course) and sink into a delightful, temporary, zabaglione-induced coma. You'll thank me and the other fatty for it. :)

1 cup brewed espresso, cooled

2/3 cup Dry Marsala Wine (or coffee liqueur of choice), separated into two 1/3 containers
4 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1 cup chilled heavy cream
12 soft ladyfingers (savoiardi biscuits) cut in half
unsweetened or semi-sweet cocoa powder for dusting

6 1/2 cup containers (coffee cups or ramekins work well)


1. Mix the cooled (freshly brewed) espresso and 1/3 cup of Marsala Wine and set aside in a small bowl. Have ready the six 1/2 cup containers you will be using.

2. For the ZABAGLIONE!
Over a baine marie (double boiler, look it up!) with barely simmering water, with a whisk (or electric mixer, if you must), beat the egg yolks with 4 tablespoons of the sugar in a metal bowl, until the mixture has tripled volume (4 to 5 minutes). Remove from heat and fold in the mascarpone gently, until fully combined.

Mixing the egg yolk mixture with the mascarpone

3. In a glass bowl, with an electric mixer on high speed and clean beaters, beat the cream with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar until stiffish peaks form. **Do NOT overbeat the cream or it will not mix well into the zabaglione!!!** Lightly fold into the mascarpone mixture.

peaks that are stiff :)

4. Snap or cut the lady fingers in half to fit the six containers. Dip the sliced ladyfingers, 1 at a time, into the espresso. Line the bottom of each container with one lady finger (two pieces).

5. Spooning generously, cover the lady fingers with approximately 1/4 cup of the mascarpone mixture.

6. Repeat steps four and five once more, making another ladyfinger and mascarpone layer in each container.

7. Sprinkle with cocoa powder and leave in the refrigerator to set for at least 3-4 hours and up to 2 days. Serve cold.

zabaglione-y goodness

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  1. Ah tirmisu - love it and it really loves me!

    I so could see the incident with the blender - I did kind of the same thing with a hotpot that I forgot to unplug so it was easy for me to replace scalding hot cuban pork with lovely cream - rebound of the cord - BOING and the flying in slow motion and that senseless belief that the whole incident is still salvageable.

    I love zabaglione and have to say I got rather tipsy making some with my MIL last year - she kept asking me to taste, and I was happy to oblige.

    I also hear you loud and clear on the choice of alcohol and also fervently wish folks would not keep messing with a classic. My mom had a craving when we were traveling and we stopped in a Marks and Spensers and she found a black forest version, and I was so discussed it was the equivalent of jello and whipped cream - WTH? I look forward to trying your classic version.

  2. This is a dessert that I usually leave to the professionals. However, with your tips, I may be inspired to try making it myself. The effort that goes into making zabaglione justifies a large portion of tiramisù for the cook! 8-)