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The bittersweet charms of tiramisu

The bittersweet charms of tiramisu

Its name means “pick-me-up” in Italian

Its name means “pick-me-up” in Italian

Josie Delap | October/November 2019

“Tiramisu,” murmurs Rob Reiner’s character knowingly to Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle”. “What is tiramisu?” asks Hanks, a widower venturing back into the world of dating. “Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!” “You’ll love it,” Reiner assures him.

When the film was released in 1993 tiramisu was an obscure confection unheard of even in an America rich with Italians. The offices of Tristar, which distributed the movie, apparently received as many as 30 calls a day from viewers as anxious as Hanks to be enlightened. Some were disappointed to discover it was merely a dessert, others relieved.

Today it appears on Italian menus everywhere, from the trattorias and ristoranti of Venice to red-sauce joints of Boston’s North End. But the supposed Italian classic probably dates back only as far as the 1960s. The name means “pick me up” in Italian: Ada Campeol, an exhausted young mother and owner of Le Beccherie restaurant in Veneto in northern Italy, is said to have come up with the dessert. Others credit Carminantonio Iannaccone, an Italian chef who ran a bakery in Baltimore’s Little Italy and brought the recipe with him to America. The governor of Veneto was outraged when, in 2016, two food writers suggested that tiramisu instead originated in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region that borders Austria and Slovenia.

Whatever its origins, shattered parents everywhere can attest to the reviving qualities of lavish quantities of caffeine and sugar. Start with savoiardi biscuits, Italy’s version of ladyfingers, light, crumbly and eager to absorb other flavours. Sodden (but not to the point of mushiness) with espresso and brandy, marsala or rum to form the dark heart of the dish. Layers of zabaglione – mascarpone whipped up with eggs and sugar to a light custard – provide contrast. A thick dusting of cocoa finishes it off, like moleskin on the tongue. The perfect way to seduce anyone.