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Elisabetta’s Quick & Easy Strawberry Dessert

Elisabetta's Strawberry Dessert

Elisabetta’s Strawberry Dessert

Elisabetta and I cook quite differently: I tend to leaf through a cookbook, and the first few times I make a dish follow the recipe. She instead improvises, and when we were asked to bring dessert to Aunt Adriana’s a few days ago we stopped at the supermarket on our way. I would have been frantic, but she instead selected:

  • An Abundance of Strawberries
  • A container of Gelato alla Panna, Vanilla Ice Cream (she opted for Algida)
  • A package of Biscotti Digestive, which are sweet meal biscuits originally developed by McVitie’s, a Scottish outfit
  • A bottle of chocolate syrup
  • A package of fingertip-sized amaretti (almond macaroons), found in the bakery section
  • A package of fingertip-sized meringques, again in the bakery section
  • A package of Mikado sticks, which are sticks made of wafer and dipped into chocolate

When we got to Adriana’s Elisabetta hulled and quartered the strawberries. She then took stemmed goblets with bowls large enough to contain a dessert and put a Digestive at the bottom of each, followed by a squirt of chocolate sauce and a mixture of strawberries and ice cream to fill the cup. More chocolate sauce over the strawberries, a sprinkling of macaroons and meringues, a spot of ice cream to support a mikado, and that’s it!

They went very fast.

Alessio’s Saffron Zuccoto, An Illustrated Recipe

Making Zuccotto: Enjoy!

Making Zuccotto: Enjoy!

A zuccotto is a tasty summer dessert, a well-chilled cream surrounded by sponge cake that gains zest from a hint of liqueur, and though it looks impressive it’s easy to make.

Chef Alessio Pesucci of the Locanda del Gallo in Chiochio (outside Florence) used a saffron cream in this zuccotto, in part because saffron is, like wine, a traditional Tuscan crop.

The use of saffron does require additional time: to extract its flavor Alessio soaked the pistils for 24 hours in cream.

A zuccotto is even easier if you start with commercially prepared sponge cake. However, Alessio, being a fine chef, makes his own.

The ingredients, for 10 servings:

The Cake:

  • 2 eggs
  • 3/8 cup (75 g) sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2/3 cup (80 g) flour
  • 1 tablespoon (15 g) clarified butter (you could, if you had to, use unclarified), melted
  • 1 teaspoon butter to grease the pan
  • 2 teaspoons flour to flour the pan

The Filling:

  • 1 pint (500 ml) heavy cream
  • A pinch of saffron pistils (.5 grams)
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar

The Syrup:

  • 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
  • 3/5 cup (150 ml) water
  • A shot (30 ml, or 2 tablespoons) of amaretto liqueur

Alessio began by pouring about a half cup of cream into a jar, adding the saffron pistils, covering the jar, giving it a good shake to sink the pistils, and putting it in the fridge.

Making Zuccotto: Preparing Torta Genovese

Making Zuccotto: Preparing Torta Genovese

He next made the sponge cake — a Genovese — by beating the eggs and sugar over a double boiler, beating constantly until the mixture reached a temperature of 50 C (about 120 F).

He then cooled the mixture by putting the top half of the double boiler in a pot of cold water, whipping constantly, and then added the flour in one fell swoop and continued to whisk the mixture for several minutes, until it looked right. At this point he gently folded in the butter, and turned the batter out into a 10-inch (25 cm) ring pan lined with oven parchment, and buttered and floured.

He baked the cake in a preheated 380 F (190 C) oven for 20 minutes, and turned it out on a rack to cool. Because the saffron had to soak, everything else happened the next day.

Making Zuccotto: Slicing The Torta Genovese

Making Zuccotto: Slicing The Torta Genovese

Come time to assemble the zuccotto — in this case the next day, when the saffron had released its essence into the cream, turning it a pretty charged yellow — one begins by lining the bowl, which should be about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter and hemispherical.

Cut the cake into two layers and set one aside. Cut the other into thin strips.

Making Zuccotto: Lining the Bowl

Making Zuccotto: Lining the Bowl

Line the bowl with the strips, using smaller pieces to fill in voids. If you want, you can lay the strips in a decorative pattern, but we didn’t.

Making Zuccotto: Filling the Bowl

Making Zuccotto: Filling the Bowl

When the bowl is lined, see to the filling: Chef Stefan combined the cream and powdered sugar and beat them until soft and fluffy. He then spooned the mixture into the bowl, smoothed it with a spatula, and covered it with a round of cake cut from the layer that had been set aside.

And set it into the fridge to chill for 2 hours.

Making Zuccotto: Brushing the Pan di Spagna with Syrup

Making Zuccotto: Brushing the Pan di Spagna with Syrup

Before unmolding the zuccotto, Stephan made a syrup by heating the sugar and water together, stirring gently until the sugar had completely dissolved.

He stirred in the amaretto liqueur and brushed the base of the zuccotto with the syrup (lightly, the cake shouldn’t be soaked). He next put a serving plate over the bowl, flipped both, and removed the bowl to free the zuccotto. At this point he brushed the top as well.

Stephan used a long knife to cut the zuccotto into sections. Since it’s a rich dessert the sections are small.

Making Zuccotto: Remving the Slice

Making Zuccotto: Remving the Slice

Some cocoa powder for decoration (see above), and enjoy!

Tiramisu: A No-Egg No-Cheese Variation

I occasionally get notes from people worried about the raw eggs in tiramisu and the health risk they pose. One option that also neatly sidesteps the risks posed by mascarpone, which should never be allowed to warm, is to use yogurt.

And since this tiramisu has neither eggs nor perishable mascarpone, I would feel comfortable adding it to the cooler and taking it on a picnic.

1 pint (500 ml) plain whole yogurt (you could also use coffee yogurt or flavors that work with coffee)
1 pound (500 g) Savoiardi or ladyfingers
1/2 cup fairly weak espresso coffee, or more if need be
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/3 cup bitter cocoa powder

Combine the sugar and coffee in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Dip the cookies in it quickly, on both sides, so they are moist but not soaked, and put them in a baking dish; when you have covered the bottom of the dish spread an even layer of yogurt over them.

Continue layering until all is used up, ending with a layer of yogurt.

Use a sieve to sprinkle the cocoa evenly over the top of the tiramisu, and chill it for 4 hours before serving it.

Looking for a traditional recipe? There are a great many out there. I very much like wife Elisabetta’s version.

On the Origins of Tiramisu, and More Recipes

The Origins of Tiramisu: Courtesans? Perhaps, But When? And What Of Zuppa Del Duce?

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

Someone on an American food-related listserve I subscribe to asked if anyone knew the origins of Tiramisu, a seriously decadent creamy dessert that combines chocolate, coffee, savoiardi cookies, and mascarpone cheese.

I said I had heard it was from Treviso (in the Veneto), and relatively recent, and a couple others said the same, adding that the recipe was developed in the 60s by Treviso’s Ristorante El Toulà.

Someone else instead said she had found a story about how Tiramisu was invented by Sienese pastry chefs in the late 1600s to honor Grand Duke Cosimo III De’Medici, who was known for his sweet tooth.

I looked around a bit, and found a number of web pages with the Sienese origin; the texts are pretty much identical (said text also appears in Volume 12 of La Repubblica’s Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, on page 285). Briefly, they say the Sienese developed the dessert for the Duke on the occasion of a State visit, and initially called it Zuppa del Duca, or Duke’s Pudding. The zuppa was a terrific success, especially among courtesans, who found it both stimulating and aphrodisiac, and thus enjoyed it before trysts; with time they took to calling it tiramisu, or pick me up. Subsequently, the story goes, tiramisu spread to Venice and the Veneto, where it remained a local treat until it suddenly gained national popularity in the late 70s.

It’s a nice story, but I have my doubts, for a number of reasons.

First, historical:

  • Artusi, who gives a number of Tuscan and Venetian dessert recipes in La Scienza in Cucina (which he published in 1891 and updated repeatedly until shortly before his death in 1911), doesn’t mention it; given his penchant for going off on tangents and telling stories, it would have been a perfect recipe for him to include, had he known about it.
  • Nor does tiramisu appear in Il Talisamno della Felicità (published in 1929), and while it is true that Ada Boni was less given to tangents than Artusi, it’s also true that she was aiming Il Talismano squarely at the emerging middle class, and would certainly have included a dessert this rich, tasty, and easy to make had she been aware of it.
  • Nor does it appear in La Mia Cucina, a comprehensive 10-volume set De Agostini published in 1978. Again, had they been aware of it, they would certainly have included it.
  • The final bit of historic evidence comes from American food writer Nancy Jenkins, who, despite having lived in Italy from 1975 to 1980, first encountered tiramisu in 1983, on the island of Torcello in the Laguna Veneta.

Cookbooks don’t bear out the legend, but there is also the cheese:

Though Mascarpone, one of the major ingredients in tiramisu, is now readily available throughout Italy, it was once a specialty of Lombardia, and more specifically Lodi and Abbiategrasso, towns not far from Milano. It’s difficult to see how a cheese as delicate as Mascarpone could have made it from Lombardia to Siena in the days before refrigeration or rapid transportation without spoiling.

And finally, there is the safety factor:

Tiramisu made following the classic recipe contains both raw eggs and mascarpone. While raw eggs in their shells keep quite well, raw egg in an uncooked cream becomes dangerous if it is not kept cold. So does Mascarpone: a number of cases of botulism have been traced to mascarpone that was allowed to warm up at some point between leaving the dairy and reaching the table. Given the state of refrigeration in the late 1600s, enjoying a bowl of tiramisu then would have been a risky proposition indeed.

So I think the recipe is recent, and am inclined to believe the folks at El Toulà; when I called they told me they don’t remember the name of the chef who first made it, sometime in the 30s, but that the clients of a nearby House of Ill Repute used to enjoy it as a ricostituente, or pick-me-up after their labors. Hence the name.

Having Said All This, Some Tiramisu Recipes:

And what about Zuppa Del Duce?

According to Giovanni Righi Parente, author of La Cucina Toscana, it’s essentially zuppa inglese, or English trifle:

Line the bottom of a tureen with thin slices of pan di Spagna (genoise, or pound cake will work as substitutes) and sprinkle them with alkermes (a spicy deep red liqueur), crème de cacao, white rum, or any other liqueur you like, so long as it’s sweet.

Pour over it a pastry cream made with 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk, 200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 2 whole eggs, separated; beat the yolks and whip the whites, and combine both with the cold milk before setting it on the stove. Cook, stirring gently over a low flame until the mixture thickens, without letting it boil, lest it curdle.

If you instead want to make a quick cream, heat the milk, sugar and flour until the mixture thickens, remove it from the burner, and when it has cooled beat the yolks and add them to the mixture (no whites here). In terms of flavoring, a vanilla bean heated with the milk (a teaspoon of vanilla extract will also work).

Chill the tureen with the pan di Spagna and the cream in the refrigerator, and after about an hour cover it with a layer of whipped cream, sprinkling all with grated chocolate and finely chopped canditi (candied fruit peels).

No Mascarpone, but it will be good.

Elisabetta’s Tiramisu

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

People occasionally ask me which is my favorite among the dozens of Tiramisu recipes out there. Put simply, wife Elisabetta’s:

  • 4 very fresh, top quality eggs, separated
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/4 pounds fresh mascarpone cheese
  • Brandy (dashes, optional – depending upon how she feels at the moment)
  • 1 demitasse espresso coffee, diluted with water and lightly sweetened with sugar
  • 3/4 pound savoiardi cookies (available in Italian delicatessens (if need be you canmake them, or use ladyfingers — 1 savoiardo = 2 ladyfingers)
  • Powdered bitter chocolate

Beat the yolks with the sugar, then whip in the mascarpone and, if you’re using it, the brandy. Whip 2 of the whites to firm peaks (use the other 2 for something else) and fold them in.

Put the diluted, sweetened coffee in a bowl and add about a tablespoon of brandy (to taste here, assuming you want it). Dip the savoiardi in the coffee and line a mold large enough to hold the mascarpone mixture. Fill with the mixture, chill for 2 hours, and dust with the powdered chocolate before serving.

This should serve 6-8. Should, I say.

On the Origins of Tiramisu, and More Recipes