I remember having tiramisu for the first time at a little Italian restaurant where my dad worked when I was a kid and hating the stuff. No 6-year-old loves marsala wine in what should be pudding and cookies. Fast forward to my days in culinary school, where I fell in love with a tiramisu so full of rich coffee flavor and the lightest, airiest zabaglione I'd ever had. Of course, making lady fingers from scratch made me think I'd never make tiramisu from scratch ever again!
At home, I take the lessons I learned as a kid and a culinary student to make a tiramisu strong on the coffee flavor and focused on a dreamy, light mascarpone and zabaglione filling. We'll pick up a package of store-bought lady fingers and never look back because this recipe is easily the best tiramisu I've ever eaten.
What Is Tiramisu?
This Italian dessert loosely translates to a "pick me up" and falls somewhere between a pudding and a trifle. Layers of whipped pudding known as zabaglione are layered with coffee and liqueur-soaked lady fingers. Then the whole dish is topped with cocoa powder or shaved chocolate. The history and invention of tiramisu is quite disputed, with some Italians claiming it to be a rustic heritage dish and others saying it could only have been invented by an Italian pastry chef. It became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s where it remains popular as a "restaurant only" type dessert.
I'm not going to tell tales here: Tiramisu at home requires a bit of work (mostly in making a zabaglione from whipped eggs), but since making this dish at home means you can dial in the flavors exactly as you like them, the efforts are well worth it.
As your fork swipes through a serving you'll find that the lady fingers are miraculously tender, holding together a light-as-air pudding. Each bite is rich and creamy with a balanced sweetness and just a little boozy with coffee and cocoa's bitterness for a dessert that keeps you coming back for more after each bite.
A riveting read: The Trail of Tiramisu from the Washington Post
For Your Information
- In this version of tiramisu we're swapping the marsala wine with coffee liqueur or rum. More on that below.
- Buy your lady fingers. You'll need one (7-ounce) package. I love the Whole Foods brand lady fingers.
- Let the whole tiramisu sit for at least 8 hours before serving. A full 24 hours is even better.
Key Steps for the Best Tiramisu
- Use an alcohol you like instead of marsala wine. I realize this is untraditional advice, since marsala is considered a key component of tiramisu's zabaglione. There's some evidence that the original tiramisu had no booze at all, but since I almost never keep sweet marsala on hand, I skip it here in favor of a coffee liqueur. If you love marsala by all means, substitute it for the booze here. Overall, add what tastes good to you.
- Buy the lady fingers. It is incredibly important that the lady fingers used for this recipe are very dry — they soak up a coffee and liqueur syrup as well as moisture from the mascarpone filling. Baking lady fingers at home takes considerable time and practice to get it right. Do yourself a favor and buy the lady fingers.
- Cook the zabaglione over a double boiler. Zabaglione is traditionally whipped eggs, sugar, and sweet wine served with fresh fruit. In tiramisu, zabaglione is folded into a mascarpone and cream mixture that makes up the body of the dish. A gentle heat is important to cooking the eggs while melting the sugar and making a thick zabaglione for building the tiramisu. You'll know it's thick enough when the sugar is dissolved and running a spoon through the zabaglione leaves a thick trail.
- Cool the zabaglione completely before adding the mascarpone and whipped cream. Warm zabaglione will effectively melt the mascarpone mixture and deflate the whipped cream. Let the zabaglione cool for at least 10 minutes before whipping the cream and mascarpone and adding and folding the two mixtures together.
Once built, the tiramisu needs to chill for at least eight hours but ideally 24 before serving. The lady fingers will continue to soften and the tiramisu will set to a sliceable consistency. Just before serving, dust the top of the dish with cocoa powder or shaved chocolate.
How To Make Classic Tiramisu: The Easiest, Simplest Method
What You Need
- For the lady finger syrup:
Kahlua or coffee liqueur
- For the mascarpone zabaglione:
large egg yolks
Kahlua or dark rum
- To build:
Cocoa powder or chocolate shavings, for garnish
8x8-inch baking dish
Measuring cups and spoons
4-quart pot and medium mixing bowl
Electric hand or stand mixer
Make the lady finger syrup. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the espresso powder and Kahlua. Set aside to cool while you prepare the zabaglione.
Prepare a double boiler and prep the zabaglione. Fill a 4-quart pot with water and find a heatproof bowl that will rest comfortably on the pot without touching the water. Remove the bowl from the pot, set the pot over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks and sugar in the heatproof bowl and whisk until well combined.
Cook the zabaglione over the double boiler until lightened, thick, and doubled in volume. Place the egg yolk and sugar bowl over the pot of simmering water and whisk constantly until the sugar dissolves and the mixture becomes thick and doubled in volume, about 10 minutes. Add the Kahlua and whisk until well combined.
Cool the zabaglione and whip the mascarpone and cream. Remove the zabaglione from the pot of simmering water and set aside to cool. Place the mascarpone in the bowl of an electric hand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.) Beat on medium speed until the mascarpone is softened, about 1 minute. Add the cream and beat on medium speed to soft peaks, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix on low speed until just combined.
Fold the cream mixture into the zabaglione. The zabaglione should be cool to the touch before folding in the cream mixture. Add 1/3 of the whipped cream to the zabaglione and, using a large spatula, gently fold it in with a smooth scooping motion to incorporate it. Add the remaining whipped cream in two batches, using the same gentle folding motion. Don’t worry if the cream isn’t perfectly incorporated — it's better to have some streaks of the cream mixture than overworked zabaglione.
Build the tiramisu. Working with 2 to 3 lady fingers at a time, quickly dunk each lady finger in the cooled espresso syrup and place it in an 8x8-inch baking dish. Repeat, nestling the lady fingers in tightly next to each other and breaking the lady fingers in half if needed, until the bottom of the pan is covered. Cover the first layer of ladyfingers with half of the zabaglione mixture. Repeat layering with the remaining ladyfingers, syrup, and zabaglione. Smooth the top with an offset spatula and cover.
Chill the tiramisu for 8 to 24 hours. Refrigerate the tiramisu for 8 to 24 hours so the lady fingers can soften and the zabaglione mixture can firm up enough to cut.
Dust the tiramisu with chocolate and serve. Top the tiramisu with cocoa or chocolate shavings just before serving. Use a sharp knife to cut precise squares, or use a large spoon to scoop more rustic portions into serving bowls.
Storage: Leftover tiramisu can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. The lady fingers will continue to soften as the tiramisu sits.