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.