Tiramisù is one of the most popular desserts in the world. After pasta and pizza, it is the most well-known Italian eatable. Today it is among the top twelve most widely recognized Italian words in the world and of the top three throughout Europe. In China, it is the most clicked-on Italian word on the Internet.
In a famous scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary, the protagonist, played by Renèe Zellweger, notes in her diary that the greatest guilty pleasure in her life is none other than tiramisù. And who can blame her? The name itself is evocative. Its creation is ostensibly simple, consisting of a handful of different elements, but the result is a formidable dish that ensnares all who venture to taste it, thus yielding a perfect synthesis of the Italian culinary imagination. Yet to unravel the secret of what makes tiramisù so special, we must first uncover its history.
There exist many versions of the origin of tiramisù. According to some, the legend spans back to the seventeenth century, its first preparation by Sienese confectioners for the visit of the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici. On this occasion, it was aptly named, “The Soup of the Duke.” After his encounter with the dessert, the Grand Duke of Tuscany elected to bring the recipe with him, first reaching Treviso and then 27 km south to Venice. The soup quickly became popular among courtiers who would consume it to fuel their romantic encounters, lending to it the more provocative name, “tiramisù” or, “lift me up.”
Conversely, some attribute its origins to Friulian sous-chef Mario Cosolo of the Italian Navy. In the May of 1938 in Pieris, a hamlet within the town of Gorizia on the border of Italy and Slovenia, Cosolo prepared this dessert for the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele. It was also called “The Coachman Cup”, or “Tirime Su.”
Others maintain, however, that the origins are much more recent—between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, by the pastry chef, Roberto “Loly” Linguanotto at the famous Italian restaurant, Alle Beccherie in Treviso, to be precise. The same Linguanotto declared that the first recipe was recovered from the ancient “sbatudin”—a Venetian confection comprised of egg yolks and sugar that was used by farming families as a tonic—to which they simply added mascarpone.
In fact, the recipe for tiramisù does not appear in cookbooks until the 1960s and the first mention of the name in the Italian dictionary was in 1980, suggesting that the recipe for tiramisù, as we know it today, is a recent invention.
Furthermore, some attest that the Venetian name, “Tiramesù” was Italianized to “Tiramisù,” in association with its nutritional and restorative capacities. Hence, “to pick one up.” In a 2012 interview with Italian news, Carlo Campeol, the last owner of the historic Alle Beccherie affirms, “At the beginning of the 1970s a dessert was born—not by inventing anything, but by merely joining commonly used and well-known ingredients—that sparked the imaginations of many and the desire for birthright by all.”
As a rich dessert with an even richer history, tiramisù has amassed quite a fanbase. In fact, it is so beloved that March 21 was selected as Tiramisù Day by food writers, Clara and Gigi Padovani. Tiramisù was also awarded the “Taste of Europe 2019” on Gelato Day that had been held every March 24 since 2013.
In the third edition of the Tiramisù World Cup held in Treviso on the first weekend of November, Fabio Peyla was crowned the Tiramisù Champion of the World. The Champion of the World of Creative Tiramisù was Sara Arrigoni with her mojito version. Francesco Redi, founder of the Tiramisù World Cup, recounts that he started the competition because relatives, friends, and acquaintances consistently claimed that only their mothers had the original recipe and could make it better than anyone else. So, he wanted to take the best in the world seriously.
The Traditional Recipe and Its Variants
Often one of the first desserts that one learns to prepare, tiramisù is a decadent course of simple execution, provided that fresh ingredients are used.
If you still haven’t made it, then just give it a shot. Here is a straightforward approach with a traditional recipe that doesn’t skimp on flavor.
300 g ladyfingers
4 fresh medium eggs
500 g of mascarpone
100 g of sugar
Coffee from a moka pot, pre-made and let cool
Before anything else, separate the yolks from the whites, and beat them separately. The former with sugar, and the latter by themselves. Gently fold the mascarpone and beaten egg whites into the yolk-and-sugar mixture by hand. Soak the ladyfingers in the coffee and lay them in alternating layers with the mascarpone cream. At the end, finish everything off with a dusting of cocoa powder.
The step of folding the mascarpone with the beaten egg whites by hand is fundamental in ensuring that the resulting cream is soft and full-bodied without being completely absorbed by the ladyfingers.
Once you’re comfortable with the traditional version, feel free to get creative. Through the years, many variations have been proposed: from the simple addition of liquor like Marsala, Alchermes, or rum, or the addition of dark chocolate shavings inside the mascarpone. In a more unorthodox version—strawberry tiramisù—the coffee is substituted with strawberry juice and the layer of cocoa powder is swapped out for fresh strawberries. There are even variations with Pavesini cookies, sponge cake, limoncello, Nutella, heavy cream, and of tiramisù in the form of ice cream. Rest assured that the future still holds many fantastical incarnations of this versatile and well-loved dessert.
Tiramisù has conquered the palates and the hearts of many. It has spanned the globe by many names and in many forms, but it is always recognizable. The advent of tiramisù truly teaches us something: that things in life don’t need to be complicated in order to make everyone happy. Between the sweetness of the sugar and the bitterness of the coffee—like many extremes in life—the secret is to find balance.