I've made it pink and girlie, all dressed up in berries and frivolity, drenched in exotic red fruit nectar and ready for summer fun. I've made it rich and movie star chic, adorned in sweet, tangy cherries, tender, perfumed chocolate ladyfingers nestled deeply in a luxurious cloak of cool, creamy sophistication. But for Valentine's Day, I follow my son's classic Italian traditional recipe; but, then again, it's traditional for a very good reason, isn't it? He blends and stirs with care and love, eggs cracking, beater whizzing, coffee steeping and the kitchen starts to smell like an old-world caffé where gentlemen dressed in elegantly tailored suits sip their caffè coretto, deep, dark espresso splashed with the tiniest hint of Amaretto, adding just a touch of mystery and warmth. And then she walks in, long, delicate, cloudlike biscuits bathed in the dark, bitter potion and wrapped in lush, smooth mascarpone, whipped up into ethereal lightness, soft and pale like alabaster skin, lightly kissed by more earthy Amaretto or aromatic vanilla, if you please, and draped in a velvety blanket of bitter cocoa and then chilled until as cool and deep as the cold, dark gaze of some old film femme fatale. And together it is heaven, the most romantic of desserts.
Tiramisù! The most glorious, most perfect of all desserts, divinely rich, lush and voluptuous, a delicacy to savor, spoonful by sensuous spoonful. Let it sleep overnight, do not disturb, then pull it out of its icy resting place and scoop up a morsel and taste, roll it around on the tongue, tickle your taste buds and you'll discover a luxurious sensation, silk sliding over bare, gently perfumed skin, flavors mingling, bitter coffee and cocoa losing their edge as they meld into one with the delicately sweetened mascarpone cream, followed mischievously by that nutty bite of Amaretto, Tiramisù's most perfect mate. Tiramisù, cool and comforting all at once, like being pulled out of the cold wind into a warm embrace.
As Valentine's Day approaches on little Cupid's feet, whether we love or loathe this most controversial of holidays, we are all swept up into the spirit of the day, even the hardest, most skeptical of hearts melts under a wave of irresistible romance. Armfuls of roses, red, pink and white, boxes of chocolates and diamonds nestled in tiny velvet cases, there is no avoiding Valentine's Day and all the expectations, the excitement of both giving to and receiving gifts from the one we love. So let yourself be inspired and embrace the mood! Although Valentine's Day brings thoughts of chocolate to mind, dense truffles or elegant gâteaux, try something different, something much more voluptuous and sexy, luxurious and elegant: the perfect Tiramisù! Indulge! Tiramisù is a treat meant to be savored slowly, a delicacy to linger over, a confection to soothe and seduce your emotions all evening long like one slow dance or a final glass of Champagne, the perfect dessert to be shared. Nothing quite says I Love You like Tiramisù! And isn't that what Valentine's Day is all about?
CLEMENT'S CLASSIC PERFECT TIRAMISÙ
I make one 10 ½ x 6 ½ - inch glass baking dish plus two 3-inch round individual molds for that special Valentine's Day dinner for two. Or make it in a 8 or 9-inch round springform pan.
About 30 Savoyard Biscuits (store-bought sponge fingers or ladyfingers, or homemade, recipe follows)
4 very fresh eggs, separated
2 cups (16.5 oz, 500 g) mascarpone
½ cup (100 g) sugar or to taste, divided
4 Tbs or more Amaretto *
a few cups strong coffee
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
* You can replace the Amaretto with the more classically Italian Marsala or, for a non-alcohol version, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract and ½ a teaspoon of almond extract to taste.
Prepare the Mascarpone Cream:
Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Set the whites aside is a large bowl.
Beat the yolks until thick and pale. Add the mascarpone, all of the sugar accept 1 tablespoon, about 4 tablespoons of the Amaretto, and fold all together until very well blended and very creamy. Using very clean beaters in your electric beater/mixer, beat the whites (best results in a plastic or metal bowl) until they start to stiffen. Add the remaining tablespoon of sugar gradually as you continue to beat the whites stiff. The whites are ready when you can turn the bowl upside down and they don't budge (Clem refused to turn the bowl upside down over his head, which is traditional). Carefully fold the beaten egg whites, a third at a time, into the mascarpone/egg mixture, using a spatula: gently but firmly, scoop down to the bottom around the edge of the bowl, lift and fold, turning the bowl with your left hand as you go, until the whites are completely blended in, but don't overfold or you may crush all of the air and lightness from the whipped whites.
Taste the mascarpone, adding a bit more sugar or Amaretto to taste.
Assemble the Tiramisù:
Whether using individual molds or glasses/dishes or one larger serving dish, spoon and spread a thin layer of the cream mixture on the bottom.
Take one Savoyard or Ladyfinger at a time, trimming to fit your mold if necessary, and soak in the coffee, briefly but thoroughly. The biscuit should be soaked through and soft, but not so soaked that the cookie falls apart or disintegrates. Line the bottom of the mold or serving dish with the coffee-infused cookies, pushing them together so as not to leave space between the cookies. Now spoon half of the remaining mascarpone cream into the mold or dish, smoothing over the cookies, forming a rather thick layer. Repeat with a layer of coffee-drenched cookies, then the mascarpone to the top of the dish or mold.
Sprinkle the entire surface with unsweetened cocoa powder to cover completely. Chill well.
Tiramisù can be made in one large, deep, preferably glass (to see the beautiful layers) serving dish or in individual glass bowls. I love to make part of the recipe in circular molds, placing and filling the molds directly on individual dessert plates. To remove the mold, very gently jiggle and twist slightly back and forth, lifting the mold straight up. Once you feel the Tiramisù release, just lift the mold straight up. Tiramisù is best made in the morning to be served after dinner at night or the day before. Left overnight in the fridge, the coffee-soaked cookies may release a bit of liquid, but it is still so exquisitely delicious!
Chocolate Cherry Tiramisù
Replace the Vanilla Ladyfingers with Chocolate Ladyfingers, replace the Amaretto with vanilla extract and add layers of Kirsch-soaked jarred cherries to each layer.
Pretty in Pink Strawberry Tiramisù
Place a pint of berries in a saucepan with a glug or two of berry juice or syrup or water. If thinning it with water, add sugar just to lightly sweeten if needed. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and allow to simmer for just a couple of minutes, mashing and puréeing the berries with a spoon or potato masher. Remove from the heat, strain into a wide, shallow bowl and allow to cool completely. This fruit liquid replaces the coffee for dipping the cookies or cake.
The traditional ladyfingers can be replaced with a strawberry genoise or cake or Reims Rose pink cookies.
Add layers of sliced strawberries (from an additional pint or two) between the layers of mascarpone cream and biscuits/cake and top the Tiramisù with more strawberry slices instead of cocoa powder. Top with crushed cookies or crushed Amaretti biscuits if desired.
This recipe makes 24 large or 45 smaller ladyfingers
3 large eggs, separated
6 Tbs (75 g) sugar
¾ cup (95 g) cake flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla
6 Tbs (50 g) confectioner's/powdered sugar or as needed
Separate the eggs. Place the yolks in a large mixing bowl. Place the whites in a medium-sized metal or plastic bowl and add a pinch of salt. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Line 2 large baking or cookie sheets with parchment paper. I "glued" down the corners of the parchment with a dab of softened butter just so the parchment lay flat.
Beat the egg whites on low for 30 seconds then increase the beater speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. Continue beating while sprinkling on about a tablespoon or 2 of the sugar until the whites are stiff.
Beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and the vanilla until thick, pale and the batter forms a ribbon when the beaters are lifted up, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a spatula, fold the whites into the yolk mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the flour also added in 3 times, until smooth and well blended. Do not overfold. Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip (or just snip the end off; you could also use a plastic sandwich bag) and fill with the batter. Pipe the batter into 5" long and 3/4" wide strips (or larger or smaller as needed) leaving about 1" space in between the strips. Now sift half the confectioner's sugar evenly over the ladyfingers, coating generously, wait 5 minutes and then sift the remaining confectioner's sugar over the ladyfingers for a second coating. This helps to give the ladyfingers their characteristic crispness.
Bake the ladyfingers for 10 minutes then turn the baking sheets around back to front and continue baking until the fingers are lightly golden, about 5 minutes more depending on your oven. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow to cool slightly before removing them with a metal spatula onto cooling racks to cool completely.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.