March 16, 2021

Tiramisu: The classic Italian coffee dessert

Tiramisu is one of the most popular desserts in the entire world. It is a traditional Italian sweet dish, made with coffee, sponge, egg yolks, mascarpone, and cocoa.

The first recorded tiramisu recipe can be traced back to 1960s Treviso, in the Veneto region of Italy. Today, decades on, the dessert is one of the country’s most famous culinary exports.

To better understand the origins of tiramisu and its relationship with coffee, I spoke with chefs from Le Beccherie – the restaurant that food historians trace the dessert back to – and Elisa Urdich, Italian coffee competition winner and owner of Taste

You may also like our article about the mocha.

What is tiramisu?

Tiramisu is a layered cake-like dessert consisting of four essential ingredients. These are coffee, mascarpone (Italian soft cheese made from cream), egg yolks, and ladyfinger sponge biscuits (savoiardi in Italian). 

The Italian sweet dish is often served in small glass dishes, so consumers can see the distinct layers of cream and sponge. It is also dusted with cocoa powder.

Tiramisu is typically made with these four or five ingredients; however, many consider coffee to be the most important. This is because it contrasts the softer, more mellow tastes of egg yolk, sponge, and mascarpone. It can be added to the recipe as soluble (instant) coffee, a pre-brewed concentrate, or even as a flavoured syrup. 

However, some chefs argue that using non-brewed coffee doesn’t produce a prominent enough coffee flavour. As such, they argue that it must be brewed to “stand out” against the other key ingredients.

A brief history of tiramisu

The origins of tiramisu can be traced back to Treviso, in the Veneto region of Italy (which is also known for producing some of the best Prosecco in the world). Trevigians have long since mixed eggs with coffee (often for breakfast), and as such it is no surprise that they are responsible for inventing the dessert.

The word “tiramisu” comes from the Trevigian “tiramisù”, which translates to “pick me up” or “lift me up”. It has been historically associated with flirting as far back as the Renaissance.

Over the years, there has been much debate about who first created tiramisu in Treviso, but the gastronomic world has widely come to accept the first official recipe can be traced back to Le Beccherie.

The story is that the recipe was first set in stone by pastry chef Roberto Lolì Linguanotto. After two years of trialling recipes, he came up with the final version on Christmas Eve, 1969. Le Beccherie still prepares their tiramisu according to his original recipe. It was supposedly originally created as a circular dish, but many variations of the dessert using other shapes exist throughout Italy and further afield.

Tiramisu has since become so highly regarded in Italian cuisine that it warranted the founding of a tiramisu school (the Accademia del Tiramisu) in April 2011. For almost ten years now, the organisation has been “transmitting the culture of tiramisu” and researching its history.

Elsewhere around the world, the dish has also become increasingly popular. After a rise in popularity in the 1980s in the US, especially among New York City’s prominent Italian-American diaspora, the dessert featured in the 1993 film Sleepless In Seattle, starring Tom Hanks. 

Through the late 20th and early 21st century, it remained popular in the US and beyond. A 2007 report states that a search for “tiramisu” yielded some 4.9 million results on Google, while other traditional Italian desserts like cannoli (792,000 hits) had far fewer.

Today, tiramisu remains a common sight on Italian dessert menus, and is popular among consumers around the world.

Choosing the right coffee for your tiramisu

Coffee has two main functions in a tiramisu recipe: it changes the texture of the ladyfinger sponges and balances the sweetness of the mascarpone cream. Once the sponge absorbs the coffee, it becomes much fluffier and less brittle, creating a richer and more decadent mouthfeel.

Elisa is the 2020 Italian Brewers Cup champion and the 2019 Italian Aeropress Champion. She explains that the coffee used in Le Beccherie’s original tiramisu recipe is made with a moka pot, a staple brewer in households across Italy.

“Italian coffee culture is very traditional,” Elisa tells me. “This is why we prefer coffee with very rich and bitter flavors, as is the case with tiramisu.”

For this article, Elisa experimented with a range of different coffees to find the perfect one for tiramisu, as did Manuel Gobbo and Beatrice Simonetti, chefs from Le Beccherie. Elisa’s café, Taste, is also located in Treviso. They worked to find the right brewing method and the perfect cup profile for this classic Italian dessert.

After much research, Elisa, Manuel, and Beatrice all concluded that espresso was the best way of bringing out the bitterness in the cup. Elisa says this offers the best contrast against the creamy flavours of the mascarpone. She also notes that she used a dark roast blend of coffees from India, Brazil, and Ethiopia, all of which had prominent bitter characteristics. 

The coffees were all either naturals or honey processed, to create complexity, increase sweetness, and reduce acidity. Elisa says that coffees with high levels of acidity would be “too invasive” for the traditional taste of tiramisu.

She says that too much acidity can clash with the dairy in the dish, creating undesirable flavours and textures or masking the flavour of the coffee altogether.

The Le Beccherie recipe

This is the recipe invented on Christmas Eve 1969 by the chefs at Le Beccherie, which they tell me is the oldest tiramisu recipe on record.

The recipe they provided is enough to fill a large restaurant dish. You should divide it by three to fill a 20cm square dish, which would be enough for five or six people.

Ingredients

  • 12 egg yolks
  • ½ kg white sugar
  • 1 kg mascarpone
  • 60 ladyfinger biscuits
  • Enough brewed coffee to soak the ladyfinger biscuits (around 4 cups for 60 biscuits)
  • Pure cocoa powder for dusting

Preparation

  • Brew the coffee and allow it to cool
  • Beat your egg yolks with your sugar until well whisked
  • Mix the mascarpone until the texture is smooth
  • Set the cream mixture aside
  • Soak half of your ladyfinger biscuits in the brewed coffee, but don’t let them sit for too long to make sure the texture isn’t too soggy
  • Arrange the soaked biscuits in a row in the centre of dish (a circular dish if you want to keep to tradition)
  • Spread half of the cream mixture onto the biscuits
  • Soak the other half of your biscuits in the coffee, then place them into the dish
  • Spread the remaining cream mixture on top
  • Sprinkle with sifted cocoa powder
  • Place in the fridge for 3 or 4 hours, allowing the dish to firm and the flavours to develop

Alcohol can also be used to soak the ladyfinger biscuits. For this, sweet marsala wine from Sicily, is the most popular option. Marsala is made from native Sicilian grapes and is often fortified with brandy, giving it a rich, nutty, and caramelised flavour.

Rum, Curaçao liqueur, triple sec, and Grand Marnier are all popular spirits that can be added to tiramisu, but the chefs at Le Beccherie said they keep their recipe alcohol-free.

Alternative recipes

Le Beccherie also prepare an alternative version of tiramisu to serve in the restaurant: the “tiramisù sbagliato” (which roughly translates to “messed-up tiramisu”). This adaptation has the same ingredients as a traditional tiramisu, but is served in a “deconstructed” form.

Sara is the maître d’ at Le Beccherie. She says: “[With] this version, we [use] the same ingredients but in different consistencies, and we [also] add a Prosecco jelly. 

“In this way, we [showcase] the importance [of] another [traditional] product of our territory: Prosecco.”

Some tiramisu recipes also call for egg white instead of yolk. This creates a lighter, mousse-like cream, compared to the thicker, richer consistency created by beating egg yolks, sugar, and cream together.

Whether you prefer tiramisu according to the original recipe or enjoy a variation of your own, there’s no denying that this Italian dessert is enjoyed by millions around the world.

If you consider making your own, try experimenting with different coffee origins and processing methods. This will let you create a variety of unique tastes, leveraging the flavours of a range of coffees in one of Italy’s favourite decadent sweet treats.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the affogato!

Photo credits: Elisa Urdich, Le Beccherie, Taste Coffee

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