The ubiquitous tiramisu turns up on so many menus. You’ll find it everywhere from dinner parties to street-side Italian(ish) cafes. I’ve seen it with strawberries, or set with gelatine into fancy freestanding shapes, then topped with flourishes to beautify what is otherwise a fairly beige and sloppy mess.
At the start of my career I saw those fancy versions and yearned to learn the techniques that would showcase my mettle as a chef. But I was working for the highly regarded Italian–German chef Bill Marchetti, who taught me a version of tiramisu that was no oil painting. Marchetti was adamant about how this dessert should look and taste at his Latin restaurant in 1997. The texture was to just hold, the sponge served to almost suspend the liquid between the layers, and the mascarpone sabayon/zabaglione was to remain as light as possible without collapsing.
None of this made for a pretty dish. But that is exactly the point and the reason I almost shudder at the sight of a freestanding tiramisu now. Each element of tiramisu is integral to the finished product. The sabayon can be a dessert on its own, known as zabaglione, and is often served warm with ripe fruit or berries. At Marchetti’s Latin, the alcohol content was the Italian liqueur alchermes. It generally requires some footwork to find, but it’s well worthwhile tracking down. Together with the coffee and chocolate, it creates something special.
I admit I am no huge fan of desserts – my resistance to put them on my menus pays testament to this – but making this tiramisu was a lesson in the things I love about cooking. It doesn’t have to look beautiful to deliver in the area that is most important.
120g soft butter
180g castor sugar
800ml coffee (long black)
60ml Liquore Strega
200g dark chocolate (grated)
cocoa powder for dusting
For the sponge:
Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl mixer with a whisk attachment. Drop in two of the eggs one by one until they both emulsify.
Add the flour, milk and the final egg and fold together without agitating excessively until well combined.
Pour the mix into a lined round tin and bake at 160ºC for 40 minutes.
Let the sponge cool on a cake rack for at least 30 minutes.
For the sabayon:
Combine the eggs, sugar and Marsala in a large steel (or copper) whisking bowl. Place over a pot of simmering water and whisk well until the temperature is just above 64ºC (use a thermometer to check it doesn’t go far over that temperature, as you want the sabayon to hold as much volume as possible). This is the key to the whole recipe.
Let the sabayon cool for a few minutes before folding through the mascarpone. If the mixture is too hot, the mascarpone will split. If it is too cold the sabayon will lose body.
Once the mascarpone is incorporated, place this mix in the fridge until assembly.
Coffee mixture and assembly:
When the sponge is cool and the sabayon has been made, prepare the coffee mix by extracting (or buying) 800 millilitres of coffee in a long black measure. Add the Strega and the alchermes and place into a bowl a little bigger than the base of the sponge.
Cut the top and bottom off the sponge, then cut into three even discs using a bread knife. Place one disc into the coffee mixture and then lift it out using a spider strainer or similar. Let the excess coffee mix drain off before placing the sponge into your serving bowl.
Scatter a third of the grated chocolate evenly over the sponge, then top that with a third of the sabayon mix. Repeat these layers until the sponge, sabayon and chocolate are all used.
Cover and place the assembled tiramisu in the fridge for at least two hours, but preferably overnight so that everything gets to know each other.
Prior to serving, dust the top liberally with cocoa. Ladle with a large spoon directly onto each plate.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Mess allowance".
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