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Throwback Thursday: Tiramisù, nature’s viagra

Throwback Thursday: Tiramisù, nature’s viagra
Tony Jackman’s decadent, authentic tiramisù. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Tiramisù. Who doesn’t know and adore the now classic Italian dessert that seems to encompass everything a perfect dessert should be? Or is it tira mi sù, or tireme sù? And why do older people have no memories of it from their youth?

For a famous dessert that is beloved and devoured all over the world, tiramisù is surprisingly young. If you have no recollection of growing up with tiramisu you must be over 40, because there are scant references before circa 1978 to what is now a dessert eaten all over the world. Having said that, all of that is disputed, so it all depends on who you’re asking.

Even reliable sources admit to being unsure of its origins, and there’s even an academy for this marvel of a sweet repast, which attests to its status, in the view of many, as the dessert of desserts in the modern world. The Academia del Tiramisu, established in 2011 to “transmit the culture of tiramiù”, is, to quote its website, “a cultural and food and wine association, inspired by the principles of historical, cultural and gastronomic information. Its aim is to disseminate the true geographic origins and the authentic ingredients for the traditional recipe.”

If there’s a pinch of salt to be taken with this (but not with your tiramisù), it is that other sources, some usually thought of as reliable and without an oar in the pond, doubt the veracity of this claim. 

The meticulous Felicity Cloake, writing in National Geographic, posits that it was invented as early as 1959, which goes against the prevailing thinking among other supposedly informed sources that it made its advent much more recently than that. She cites an anecdote relating to a novel by Jonathan Coe, Expo 58, in which the protagonist orders tiramisu in a Soho trattoria, in 1958, the year of the novel’s setting and when, the author suggests, tiramisu was all the rage in postwar London.

The only problem, as Coe discovered when he was corrected on the point by a ‘very polite’ Italian journalist during an interview,” wrote Cloake, “was that the book was set in 1958, and tiramisu wasn’t invented until 1959. Or perhaps it was the early 1970s. As is so often the case with much-beloved dishes, the origins are as hotly disputed as the recipe.”

The academy, a term possibly chosen to impress upon us that if the assertion hails from an academy it must be true, avers that the name comes from the dialect of “Veneto, where it was known as tiremesù, which in Italian, became tiramisù.” (The name was “Italianised” in the latter half of the 20th century, i.e. just the other day.) We need not dispute this. The website goes on to claim: “Oral and written traditions have handed down information about it since 1800. The Mission of the Accademia del Tiramisu and its website is to disseminate information about tiramisù made in Italy and made in Treviso.”

Now, 1800 is massively earlier than the thinking of others in the field. The enchanting yarn spun by the academy is that tiramisù “was invented by a clever ‘maitresse’ of a house of pleasure in the centre of Treviso”: “The ‘Siora’ who ran the premises developed this aphrodisiac dessert to offer to customers at the end of the evening in order to reinvigorate them and solve the problems they may have had with their conjugal duties on their return to their wives. This would seem to be the origin of the tiremesù, a natural Viagra from the 19th century, served to customers in a brothel.”

We have to wonder why an “academy” should use such vague terminology as “seem to be” if they truly believe this to be the truth. But it’s a fun story or theory.

Wikipedia says it “appears to have been invented in the 1960s, but where and when exactly is unclear”, adding that no recipe for it was found in cookbooks before the 1960s. (Great recipes usually find their way into cookbooks.) Wikipedia finds no mention of it before 1978 when it was referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald. “It is not mentioned in encyclopaedias and dictionaries of the 1970s, first appearing in an Italian dictionary in 1980, and in English in 1982. It is mentioned in a 1983 cookbook devoted to [the] cooking of the Veneto.” Which, perhaps, supports at least part of the Italian academy’s claims.

Wikipedia adds that obituaries for the restaurateur Ado Campeol (1928–2021) “reported that it was invented at his restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso on 24 December 1969 by his wife Alba di Pillo (1929–2021) and the pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto.” The dish was added to its menu in 1972. Accounts by Carminantonio Iannaccone claim the tiramisù sold at Le Beccherie was made by him in his bakery, created on 24 December 1969.

The online encyclopaedia cites various other theories, including of a similar semi-frozen dessert being served at the Vetturino restaurant in Pieris, in the Friuli Venezia Giulia, since 1938 and that this may be the origin of at least the name. “Others,” says Wikipedia, “claim it was created towards the end of the 17th century in Siena in honour of Grand Duke Cosimo III.

Tiramisù became legit (depending on which court you’re in) in July 2017 when Italy’s Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies added the dessert to an official list of traditional products of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. The good people of Veneto do not agree. “In 2013,” adds Wikipedia, “Luca Zaia, governor of Veneto, sought European Union Protected Status certification for the dessert, based on the ingredients used in 1970, so substitute ingredients, such as strawberries, could not be used in a dish called tiramisù.”

Strawberries? 👀

Should we be laying more store in the academy’s assertions? Their website, under a heading referring to “patriotic” Italian ingredients (at which, alarm bells rang in my head), avers that “in the 19th century, during the unification of Italy, many noble families in Treviso society were familiar with and ate Tiramisù [which they always refer to reverently in capital letters, setting off further alarm bells]. It was made with a type of sponge cake that was baked using traditional Austrian and Hapsburg recipes. Writer Giovanni Comisso told his dear friend, Professor Manlio Brusatin, some of the historic traditions from his family, together with anecdotes about Tiramisù, in the winter of 1968. The writer remembered how his grandmother, Giuseppina Tiretta [who died in 1917], a descendent of Count Odoardo Tiretta, was a great lover of Tiramisù, which was often eaten as an evening meal in winter.”

That’s too many alarm bells for the sanity of this writer. Let’s just make the best tiramisù we can, and that means that not only must it be well laced with coffee and liqueur, creamy and delicious, but it must not be sodden and, ideally, needs to be light and fluffy too. To that end, I set out to make a tiramisù that boasted all of those elements and I am relieved and happy to say that the result was extremely pleasing.

(Serves … well, you tell me. Eight? Four? One…?)

Ingredients

30 Savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers)

500 g mascarpone

4 large eggs, separated

100 g sugar

300 ml strong coffee (espresso is best)

3 Tbsp coffee liqueur (or use Sicilian marsala or rum)

Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

Method

Make some very strong coffee and, when it is cool, stir in 3 Tbsp coffee liqueur (which is what I used) or a good Sicilian marsala or rum.

Separate the eggs, putting the yolks into a medium-sized bowl and the whites into a bowl big enough for them to be whisked in.

Whip the egg whites until stiff, being the point at which you can turn the bowl upside down and it won’t slide out.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.

In a bowl, whisk the mascarpone to soften it. Add it to the beaten egg yolks and beat it for two or three minutes.

Fold in the egg whites, slowly but thoroughly. Using a wooden spoon, fold it from the bottom of the bowl to the top, in repeated slow movements.

Choose a nice deep bowl such as a thick Pyrex one big enough to hold everything comfortably.

Pour the cooled coffee into a container suitable for dipping the ladyfinger biscuits into it.

Now, this is the key to a good tiramisù and a soggy one: The biscuits must be dipped in and out of the coffee-liqueur very quickly. Do not let them linger for even two seconds. In, out, done.

Place them in rows along the base of the dish, then spoon on half of the creamy mixture.

Place the remaining dipped biscuits in a second layer, using them all up, then add the remaining creamy mixture and use the back of a spoon to smooth it out.

I prefer not to dust the top with cocoa yet, but to let it refrigerate first for at least three, preferably four, hours and only dust it shortly before serving. Just remember to do so, by tapping cocoa in a sieve to cover the entire top, just before you serve.

I think you know what to do next. DM/TGIFood

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

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