Taking the mystery out of fancy desserts

Tiramisu, in individual servings to resist the temptation to eat a whole pan in one sitting.
Tiramisu, in individual servings to resist the temptation to eat a whole pan in one sitting.

It's like this. You go years buying a favorite dessert or snack at the bakery or store counter, already made and ready to fulfill your every instant gratification need. You don't stop to wonder how it's made, only that you want it now, now, now, and you assume that because it's so delicious, it must require torturous amounts of time to put together.

Then, once you start gaining confidence in the kitchen, you realize that one of the most awesome things about cooking is that you get to demystify dishes you previously wrote off as too challenging. And you realize it's really not that hard. Sometimes, it's actually ridiculously easy.

I remember what it was like the first time I made magic bars, also known as seven-layer bars, also known as crack bars (maybe only to me). They're dense and rich and weigh about a pound apiece. In college, before I ever picked up a skillet for anything other than frying a couple of eggs for a desperate quick meal, I worked at a cafe, and we had these magic bars, and I sometimes "accidentally" broke them, rendering them unserviceable for sale but perfectly adequate for setting out as samples. The samples were for customers, but I don't need to tell you who actually ate most of them.

But I digress. I'm here to tell you about tiramisu. And how after years of lusting after the luscious, delicate, airy dessert, always assuming the restaurant chef knew something I could never decode, I finally decided to give it a try in my humble kitchen.

Years of careful "research" (sampling as much tiramisu as I could) yielded no special wisdom, as I am sometimes a blind consumer, eating before thinking.

I checked out a handful of recipes. Sometimes a dish has an absolute right way and wrong way to be made. That did not seem the case with tiramisu. A few things held true — you'd need mascarpone and ladyfingers for sure — but there were so many variations. Some called for just egg yolks, others egg yolks and egg whites, beaten separately. Some called for, of all things, sour cream, or heavy whipping cream. And different recipes called for different types of liquor.

Which recipe to settle for? I wanted one that would yield an authentic-enough tiramisu, but I've never been to Italy, so I figured I was a poor judge of that. Better to stick to appearance and flavor.

I thought about going with a Giada De Laurentiis recipe, 'cause she's, you know, Italian and all. But I didn't really want to break out six eggs and use only their yolks. (Remember how I have that freezer hoarding problem? The thought of six egg whites hanging out in the freezer with no purpose in life would, I thought, create too much anxiety.)

My next concern was the liquor. Recipes call for everything from marsala wine to dark rum to brandy to amaretto. As a nondrinker, how was I to know what kind of alcohol would give me that pleasing, sweet, drunken ladyfinger taste I just vaguely recognized as tiramisu-y?

I went with brandy in the end because it was cheaper than rum and seemed more accessible than marsala wine.

I was drawn to sweet-tooth-king David Lebovitz's recipe because I liked the individual serving-size glass dishes his tiramisu was served in (even though I made mine in a glass pie dish the first time I tried this recipe). Tiramisu can get sloppy when served, and I liked the idea of containing it in tidy vessels.

Well. I don't need to tell you that this recipe kicked butt. I think beating the egg whites and then folding them into the egg yolk mixture helped make the mascarpone base lighter and airier than just using egg yolks.

I am trying not to be such a pig and cutting down on sugar where I can, so I reduced the sugar in this recipe by one tablespoon. I didn't venture further, but I think you could cut it down a little more without hurting the final product.

A word on ladyfingers. I found a package of store-brand ladyfingers at ShopRite that worked well. They were crunchy and just shy of stale, which made them ideal for dunking in the coffee brandy because they held their form even when drenched. But apparently ladyfingers aren't as ubiquitous as I'd thought — Big Y only carried frozen ones, and you had to ask someone in the bakery for them. I didn't end up getting the frozen variety, so I can't vouch for their flavor or dunking power.

If you've never used mascarpone before, it's this sweet cream cheese that comes in a plastic tub. Any well-stocked supermarket should have it — it's usually with the fancy cheeses in the refrigerated island stands in the produce section, near the deli counter.

Jenna Cho blogs about food on theday.com. Email her at j.cho@theday.com.


Adapted from www.davidlebovitz.com

Serves six

1 cup strong brewed coffee, at room temperature

4-6 tablespoons brandy (more or less to taste)

2 large eggs, separated, at room temperature*

Pinch of salt

6 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 cup mascarpone

12 3½-inch ladyfingers

Unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

In a shallow dish, stir coffee in with the brandy. Adjust amount of brandy to taste. Alcohol and I aren't friends, so I kept the brandy to about 2 tablespoons, but Lebovitz's instructions (he used dark rum and cognac) call for a good amount of booze, enough so that the mixture tastes "strongly of alcohol."

In a small bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they start to get stiff. Add 3 tablespoons of sugar and continue to beat until whites form stiff peaks. (If you've never done this before, beat on medium speed for a few minutes until the egg whites go from foamy to fluffy. You'll see a ribbon trail start to form as you beat. Your egg whites are ready when you lift the beaters off the bowl and the egg whites form — you got it — stiff peaks and don't collapse back down.)

In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until the mixture is stiff and becomes a pale yellow. Use a whisk to beat in the mascarpone until there are no more lumps.

Using a spatula, gently fold in half the egg whites, then the other half, until just incorporated.

Spread a layer of the mascarpone mixture in a 9-by-9-inch glass baking pan, a 9-inch pie dish, or in six glass cups/dishes for individual servings.

Dunk each ladyfinger in the coffee mixture until completely soaked. Flip over and soak the other side as well. You want the ladyfinger to be drenched throughout but still hold their shape.

Layer coffee-soaked ladyfingers in a single layer over the mascarpone mixture.

Cover ladyfingers with a second layer of mascarpone.

Dust with cocoa powder. You can also shave some chocolate and scatter the shavings on top.

Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

* I'm a wimp when it comes to using raw eggs in recipes. The idea sort of scares me. I'm the type of cook who fastidiously washes her hands with soap after cracking eggs. I think this may have been the first recipe I've ever tried using raw eggs, and I just made sure to get fresh farm eggs from a local farm I know and trust.

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