W ith a hint of rum, and carefully crafted with layers of mascarpone custard and soaked ladyfingers, Tiramisu is an Italian dessert with global appeal. A soft and airy no-bake dessert, every bite of it is an indulgent experience of a creamy, rich taste enveloping the tongue. Tiramisu is made using eggs, sugar, milk, cream, vanilla essence, mascarpone, coffee, rum, ladyfingers, and a dusting of cocoa powder to top it all off.
As is often the case with global favourites, there’s much debate about the origin of this bowl of decadence. One source claims that it was invented by a madame in Treviso in the 1800s, as an aphrodisiac for her clients, calling it a “Viagra from the 19th century.” Backing this theory is the fact that it literally translates to ‘pick me up’ in the local dialect. Apparently, the madame would serve her clients the dessert so they could not only enjoy their time in the brothel, but also perform their marital duties once they returned home to their wives. In a similar vein, it is said that tiramisu is a derivative of “sbatudin”, a dish well-known to farmers in the Treviso region, where a mix of egg yolk beaten with sugar would be served to newlyweds.
A different account posits that the dish was created a century prior to this tale, in Tuscany. The Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici III (1642-1723) was a highly anticipated guest of honour in the region and chefs charged with preparing a banquet for the royal visitor came up with a sweet dessert called zuppa del duca (the “duke’s soup”). The seemingly impressed duke carried the recipe back with him, first to Florence, where it became a popular treat.
Meanwhile, some food experts zero in on a handwritten recipe by Norma Pielli in 1959 in Friuli Venezia Giulia. She called the dish a ‘mascarpone slice’ and served it to hikers, one of whom gave the dish its present name.
Another origin story places the birth of Tiramisu in the 1970s at a Treviso restaurant called Le Beccherie, by a veteran pastry chef named Carminantonio Lannaccone. The Washington Post reports that Lannaccone wanted to prepare a dessert that incorporated the "everyday flavours of the region: strong coffee, creamy mascarpone, eggs, Marsala and ladyfinger cookies" and worked on the recipe for over two years until it reached its final form, the one we know today. This is the version of the tiramisu's origin that is most commonly agreed on today.
In fact, Le Beccherie still uses the recipe Lannaccone developed, with nary a variation: "ladyfingers soaked in bitter strong espresso coffee, mascarpone-zabaglione cream, and bitter cocoa powder".
In its early forms, the main ingredients of tiramisu encompassed "sponge cake or ladyfingers dipped in a liqueur, then layered with grated chocolate and rich custard". In fact, its consistency was that of a not-so-firm custard. Food history accounts note that mascarpone cheese is a relatively modern addition to the dish.
In 2017, Tiramisu was declared a traditional regional specialty of Friuli, a label the Venetians are contesting. Veneto also hosts an annual Tiramisu World Cup where amateur chefs can present their creations.
Today, this dessert has global appeal and while several people work on perfecting the classic dish, others also creatively reinterpret it, adding a variety of ingredients from ginger to beer, making the dish all their own.