Is tiramisu a tired old cliche of Italian cooking, or a classic that just needs some love? And, if you do love it, how do you make it - the traditional way, or with Baileys, beer or even strawberries?
It may be a stalwart of the classic Italian dessert menu, but tiramisu has more in common with the tartiflette we enjoyed a couple of weeks ago - because far from being the traditional treat you assume it is, tiramisu, like that Alpine favourite, is actually a fairly recent invention. Sources bicker over who should take the credit, but most agree it originated in the northern town of Treviso about 50 years ago.
This explains why I am unable to find a recipe in Elizabeth David's 1954 masterwork, Italian Food, or Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking - because it's no classic. It is, however, damn good - though like Angela Hartnett in Cucina, I'm willing to bet that anybody who dined out in the UK in the 1980s will have had a bad tiramisu experience.
Soggy sponge and claggy, sickly sweet mousse, topped with furry layer of bitter cocoa powder - no wonder Hazan disowned it. But done well, there is no reason why a tiramisu shouldn't delight. After all, coffee, cream and booze is a classic after-dinner combination. It is considerably less likely to pick you up than an espresso and a shot of grappa, but it is a lot more fun.
Like a trifle, tiramisu starts with a layer of what a friend of mine dismisses with disgust as "soggy cake" - in its homeland this would mean savoiardi, the Italian version of the classic ladyfinger or boudoir biscuit. As these tend to be hard to get hold of in this country, I try both on the assumption that the only difference will be the price but I am surprised to discover that as well as being much broader, savoiardi are drier and crumblier than their French cousins. This makes them considerably less tempting to snack on while preparing tiramisu, but produces a noticeably lighter final result - they soak up more liquid, while remaining fluffier than the denser boudoir. If you can find them (larger supermarkets should have them, Italian grocers will definitely stock them, and if all else fails, you can buy them online), do use them.
I'm puzzled by the instruction, in many of the recipes, to dip the ladyfingers quickly in the espresso, as Italian chef Giuliano Bugialli suggests in the New York Times Cookbook. I'm left with a huge amount of extra coffee in almost every recipe, which suggests to me they don't mean the dipping to be quite as quick as I think they do. Indeed, the base layer of Bugialli's tiramisu is dry in the middle, which can't be right. That said, you don't want to thoroughly soak the things, given the resting period involved - just so they "turn a pale coffee colour", as Giorgio Locatelli writes in Made in Italy.
The more biscuits the better for texture: I prefer the layered dishes to Hartnett's simple two-tier affair. Locatelli's layers of chopped banana (in a tiramisu he also serves with a frangipane crisp and liquorice ice cream, both of which I must confess I decided to ignore) turn it into a kind of tiramisu/banoffee mash-up. It is an addictive combination of flavours, but not quite what I'm after here.
A proper tiramisu should contain eggs, which immediately disqualifies Jamie Oliver's quick version from the competition. How much of the egg to use, however, is up for debate. The recipe with the best claim to the title of "the original tiramisu", collected from Le Beccherie restaurant, Treviso, in 1981, differs from the others I try by using just the yolks, mixed with mascarpone cheese. The resulting custard is incredibly rich - delicious, but reminiscent of Locatelli's observation that "a real tiramisu at the end of a meal is a killer - very heavy to digest".
Hartnett's take is at the other end of the spectrum; as do Katie Caldesi's Italian Cookery Course and Bugialli, she folds in whipped egg whites, but she uses so little mascarpone in comparison that her tiramisu is rather like a mousse. It it incredibly light and lovely, but I do miss the creaminess of the cheese.
As a compromise, I'm going to use more yolks than whites, and the same ratio of mascarpone to egg as in Bugialli's recipe. Caldesi goes for a mixture of cheese and double cream, which I'm less keen on, as I think mascarpone has a better flavour.
Locatelli, in pursuit of a dessert that's a bit easier on the digestion, makes a very fancy mascarpone mousse instead, flavoured with Grand Marnier and set with gelatine. It tastes great, but unless you're serving it in tiny, Michelin-starred portions, I'm not sure it is necessarily much lighter - and it is decidedly more work without a brigade behind you.
Strong coffee is the order of the day: preferably espresso, but if you don't have a machine then a super-charged cafetière will do just fine (alternatively, you can hotfoot it down to your local cafe and demand enough shots to fell a horse). Le Beccherie (closing at the end of the month, so get there quick if you want to try theirs) leaves it at that - giving credibility to the idea that tiramisu was invented as a pick-me-up for new mothers, children and the elderly. It is perfectly nice without booze, but I think the alcohol gives the dish a more complex, interesting flavour.
Which kind of booze to use, however, is a complex issue in itself. Hartnett, Anna Del Conte and the Silver Spoon all opt for brandy, which seems to be the classic choice. Locatelli uses Grand Marnier in his mousse and leaves the coffee plain; Caldesi goes for vin santo, the Tuscan fortified wine; and Bugialli sticks in marsala wine, triple sec and brandy for good measure. The last seems like overkill to me; you need a hit from the alcohol, but it shouldn't bludgeon you around the chops and leave you for dead. I do like the way that, like Caldesi, he uses something a little sweeter, however; as the example of the sherry trifle suggests, it works very well, especially in combination with a stronger alcohol.
Though the citrus notes of Grand Marnier or triple sec is a pleasant combination with coffee and cream, I don't think another flavour is really necessary here. Brandy is fine but best of all is the rum, suggested as a substitute by Del Conte, which seems to balance the bitterness of the coffee perfectly.
Flavourings and toppings
I discount Bugialli's orange extract for the same reason as his triple sec - it's just not necessary, and the same goes for Hartnett's vanilla seeds. Chocolate, which at least has the provenance of featuring in the Le Beccherie recipe, makes a more harmonious addition. Like Hartnett they use cocoa powder, which blends in better than Caldesi and Bugialli's prettier chocolate shavings. (Locatelli makes a chocolate sauce, which is utterly delicious, but again, rather off-topic.)
Chilling is definitely necessary, as Hartnett says, for the flavours of the dessert to develop; estimates range from three hours in the Silver Spoon to 24 from Caldesi. The former doesn't seem quite long enough, as the layers remain quite separate, but I think Bugialli's six hours is quite sufficient, though it certainly won't hurt if you make it the day before and leave it overnight. Which, of course, makes it the perfect end to a dinner party - just don't try serving it after osso buco, or you may well be up all night.
The perfect tiramisu
4 eggs, separated
75g caster sugar
2 tbsp sweet marsala
2 tbsp dark rum
About 16-24 savoiardi biscuits (or boudoir, if unavailable), depending on size of dish
Cocoa powder, to dust
Whisk three of the egg whites until stiff, then set aside. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and voluminous, then whisk in the mascarpone, a little at a time, until smooth and well combined - you don't want lumps of cheese. Gently fold the three whites into the mascarpone mixture with a large metal spoon, being careful to knock as little air out as possible.
Stir the booze into the coffee and pour into a shallow dish. Dip each biscuit into the liquid until it is a pale coffee colour, then arrange to cover the base of a shallow glass dish. Spoon a third of the mascarpone mixture on top, followed by a good sprinkle of cocoa, then repeat the layers, finishing with a layer of the cheese and cocoa.
Cover and refrigerate for six hours before serving - you may need to dust with a little more cocoa to make it look respectable.
Tiramisu: a tired old cliche of Italian cooking that needs to be retired, or a classic that just needs some love? And, if you do love it - how do you make it? The traditional way, or with Baileys a la Nigella, beer or even (heresy) strawberries?
Photo: Felicity Cloake's perfect tiramisu. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian