When A announced a few weeks ago that he loved tiramisu, I was simultaneously horrified that I had never made it and thrilled with the inspiration for his birthday dessert. After some initial research and consultation with C, it became clear that choosing the right recipe would be a challenge. There are numerous factions—mascarpone custard vs. mousse, type and quantity of liquor, ladyfingers vs. cake, homemade ladyfingers vs. store bought, wedge vs. square. We settled on Richard Sax’s version, adapted from Providence’s Al Forno restaurant, which ticks the boxes for custard/ modest rum or brandy/ homemade cake sliced into oozing, delightful wedges.
Richard Sax’s recipe raises the bar for this old classic but doesn’t set it. The custard was perfect—silky, rich, and flavorful without approaching boozy (a variety of tiramisu I don’t fancy). However, the custard to cake ratio seemed off—perhaps my baking execution failed, but the cake barely yielded 3 layers. As a result, it felt more like a pudding than cake, and I wanted a more toothsome bite.
The question this endeavor raised in my mind is whether tiramisu warrants a quest for its perfect form. I think it does. There was something deeply satisfying and homey about this dessert, that had me sneaking to the fridge with a spoon in hand, despite any flaws. I am already looking forward to round two.
A few notes: This recipe calls for a seemingly irresponsible amount of espresso—two whole cups. I mistakenly left some in the measuring cup. Use it all. It’s the textural contrast of soaked cake to custard that makes this dessert. The cake also cooked faster than instructed—start checking on it at 20 minutes. Finally, plan ahead—there are many steps, and this dessert only improves with time. I made the cake and custard the night before, and assembled the next morning.
Adapted from Richard Sax
1 recipe Marie’s Vanilla Spongecake (instructions below)
2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup light rum or cognac (I used brandy)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup mascarpone cheese
2 cups espresso (don’t substitute coffee)
3 -4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
In a saucepan over medium heat, scald all but two tablespoons of the milk with the sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with the reserved 2 tablespoons of milk and the flour.
Slowly pour 1/2 of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking continuously. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until it comes to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes—keep stirring! Remove from heat and strain the custard into a clean bowl. Avoid temptation to skip the straining. Whisk in the butter, liquor, and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface to prevent a "skin" from forming. Refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.
In a bowl, fold and mash mascarpone with a rubber spatula until lightened. Fold in cold custard. Cover and chill until you are ready for assembly.
With a serrated knife, carefully cut the cake horizontally into three layers. Place the bottom layer in the springform pan. Drizzle entire surface with part of the espresso, soaking it generously. Top the cake with 1/3 of the custard. Rinse and repeat with another layer of cake, more espresso, and more custard. For the top layer, place cut side of cake up, and moisten with espresso. Spread with the remaining custard and smooth the surface. Sift cocoa over the top of the cake. Refrigerate cake for at least one hour—I would recommend several hours to ensure adequate chilling and flavor melding.
Marie’s Vanilla Spongecake
4 large eggs, separated
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sifted cornstarch
Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly butter 8- or 9-inch springform pan. Line bottom with parchment paper and lightly butter and flour.
In a bowl, combine the egg whites with the salt and beat until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar and beat until whites are just stiff.
In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and vanilla. Fold in 1/4 of the beaten whites.
Pour the egg yolk mixture into the beaten whites. Sprinkle the sifted flour and cornstarch through a strainer over the egg whites, and fold together. Do not overmix.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake until the edges are set and the cake is golden, about 25-30 minutes. Start checking after 20 minutes.
Cool the cake in the pan for a few minutes and invert the cake onto a wire rack to cool completely.
If making in advance, wrap in plastic wrap and store at room temperature.