Tiramisu bears a striking resemblance to English trifle, or at any rate the Italian-ized version of it, a preparation called zuppa Inglese, English “soup” or “stew.” Both involve spirit-soaked cakes, laid down in layers and covered with custard. The ladyfingers in tiramisu are soaked in espresso, but the principle is the same.
It’s said that originally tiramisu wasn’t made with a custard, but rather with a simple mixture of raw egg yolks beaten with sugar, to which mascarpone and whipped cream were added. Some contemporary tiramisu recipes do indeed call for uncooked egg yolks. Given that uncooked eggs still carry a risk of salmonella, I see no reason to press the issue. These days most “traditional” tiramisu is made by combining zabaglione (a sweet custard made with Marsala wine) with mascarpone and whipped cream, and that is what I shall do.
I’ll add that the original tiramisu recipes supposedly left out the alcohol, the reason being that it was a children’s dessert. I find that suspect for three reasons. First, zuppa Inglese contains alcohol. Second, since when did Italians ever begrudge their kids a taste of wine? But most importantly, I can’t believe any parents would ever allow their children to consume a dessert with this much caffeine, unless they enjoyed watching them chatter like vervet monkeys who’ve just spotted a snake.
1/2 cup to 1 1/2 cups espresso, according to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
4 egg yolks
3.5 ounces (1/2 cup) sugar
4 ounces (1/2 cup) Marsala wine
16 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup heavy cream
about 40 ladyfingers (made with bread flour if homemade)
cocoa powder for dusting
Combine the espresso and tablespoon of sugar in a small bowl and set aside. In a small saucepan, whisk the egg yolks until light in color, whisk in the sugar and then the wine. Stir over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 195 degrees. Set the custard aside to cool.
In a medium bowl beat the mascarpone until light and creamy. Add the room-temperature custard and stir to combine. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whip, whip the cream to soft peaks and fold into the mascarpone mixture.
To assemble, secure a 12″ x 9″ baking dish. Dip half the ladyfingers in the espresso mixture one by one (for less of a coffee kick, use a pastry brush to simply paint some espresso on the tops). Lay the ladyfingers down in the dish, covering the bottom. Apply half the mascarpone mixture. Repeat the dipping with the second half of the ladyfingers and lay them into the dish. Add the last half of the mascarpone mixture, and dust with cocoa powder.
Or, you can try a more unusual presentation…