Daily Herald
Forever a classic: Explore tiramisu and all its delicious versions
By Deborah Pankey | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/5/2010 5:24 PM

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In the world of dessert I've explored some global classics: richly layered Napoleans, ultra smooth flan dripping with liquid caramel, flaky apple-filled strudel, light-as-air Pavlova. These desserts define a country or region; they have survived the centuries without waning in popularity.

And then we have desserts like lava cake and tiramisu that have made relatively recent appearances on the dessert cart and attracted a band of followers.

Since Monday is Columbus Day, a day when we recognize the Italian explorer's voyage to the land we call home, let's take a closer at tiramisu.

Pretty young thing

The first recipe for Napoleans dates back to 1651. Flan is said to have been around since ancient Roman times. Culinary historians trace the first plate of tiramisu to the early 1970s. Depending on the lore you choose to believe, tiramisu, which translates to "pick/carry me up," refers either to the caffeine jolt from the espresso-infused cake layers or the custardy filling light enough to lift you to heaven.

While the history might be debated, its popularity is not. It's a top seller at Chicago Pastry in Bloomingdale, where they sell about 100 cases a week to area restaurants and grocers as well as hundreds of slices in the retail bakery.

"In a very short time it has become a classic," says Chicago Pastry owner Remo Turano.

"We started making it in the 1980s; that's when it really became popular," Turano said.

Building blocks

While takes on traditional tiramisu vary, the common elements, Turano says, are mascarpone cheese and coffee.

"Mascarpone is like cream cheese, only thicker and much smoother," Turano says.

Most recipes from the booted country blend mascarpone with zabaglione, an eggy custard. The filling may be spiked with sweet Marsala wine and then spread between layers of savoiardi (light cookies referred to as ladyfingers) that have been soaked in espresso. A dusting of cocoa powder generally garnishes the torte.

Imitators welcome

With those elements in place, the recipes start to stray. Chefs and home cooks play around with the filling, with some not wanting to worry about the only slightly cooked egg custard and others changing out the alcoholic flavorings.

Where traditional recipes call for Marsala wine in the soaking liquid and filling, modern versions get their kick from coffee liqueur, rum, whiskey or flavored vodkas.

Even the presentation gets a shake-up.

At Bapi Ristorante in Arlington Heights, chef Cristiano Bassani serves the dessert in a martini glass. Despite the presentation Bassani keeps alcohol out of the dessert. "We have a lot of families coming in here; kids eat it," he says.

In her new book "Easy Tasty Italian" (Sterling, $24.95), Laura Santtini pretty much dumps the lady fingers. In her recipe, one ladyfinger, dipped in chocolate and garnished with edible gold, emerges from a pool of whiskey-spiked coffee topped with sweet custard.

"I always find myself scooping the cream from around the biscuits," Santtini writes, "so I just left the one."

A word about mascarpone

First off, the word is mas-car-pone, not mars-ca-pone as some people are apt to call it.

Mascarpone cheese dates to the 1500s in Italy's Lombardy region. It's a cows milk cheese, made with heavy cream as heavy as you can get without being butter and powdered sugar and a bit of tartaric acid, which is the stuff that gives grapes and other fruits a sour taste.

Mascarpone is known for being an extremely lush cheese and thus fitting in desserts. "The Great Big Cheese Cookbook," a tempting collection of recipes published earlier this year by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (Running Press, $22.95), includes nearly a dozen sweet recipes using the cheese.

The book offers some savory recipes as well, like Jumbo Lump Crab Melts and Twice-Baked Potatoes with Greens and Mascarpone.

Mascarpone can add body to pasta sauces and even be substituted for cream cheese in your favorite dip and spread recipes.