Does there exist a more iconic Italian dessert than tiramisu? The mingling layers of mascarpone cream and espresso-soaked ladyfingers dusted with cocoa powder conjure memories of sipping cappuccino at Italian cafés and digging into my very own petite square of deliciousness. (And no, I’m not partial to sharing.) A good tiramisu has a certain ethereal quality, its textures and flavors blending into each other in a joyful harmony of light and airy goodness. As with so many storied dishes, the origins of tiramisu are a little hazy. It was possibly created at a restaurant in Treviso (in the Veneto region, near Venice) called Le Beccherie in 1971 (now closed), but others in Tuscany and Piedmont claim it as their own too; at the very least, most accounts describe tiramisu as a pretty recent addition to Italian cuisine, around the 1960-70s. If there’s one thing to agree on, it has become an Italian dessert legend for a reason.
The word ‘tiramisù’ translates to “pick me up” in Italian, presumably because of its caffeinated ingredients. Over the years, many creative variations of tiramisu have appeared, but the classic version contains mascarpone cheese, ladyfingers, espresso, egg yolks, and cocoa powder. The rest is debatable. I tend to gravitate toward the traditional version, but this Blood Orange Tiramisu from Baked Occasions has left quite an impression on me. In honor of the Ides of March, we swap blood orange juice for the espresso and also add a splash of Grand Marnier. Binge-watching HBO’s amazing series Rome last summer refreshed the story of Julius Caesar’s treacherous death for me, and I thought this bloody orange version was brilliantly cheeky to “celebrate” the occasion.
This recipe is also a little special for me because it’s the first one we’ve made for Baked Sunday Mornings that I tested for the book! You may recall that I had mentioned last Fall that my participation in BSM afforded me the amazing opportunity to be a recipe tester for BAKED’s fourth cookbook. Our lucky bunch was also invited to attend the book release party at the brand-new Baked Tribeca in October. I’d never done anything like this, on either account, and I still rather enjoy reminiscing about those warm, fuzzy memories. I was going to write a blog post dedicated to the book, the process of recipe testing, and the release party… but as is my habit, I get so busy that these time-sensitive pieces end up outdated and unpublished.
However, now that we’ve arrived at one of the recipes that I tested on the baking schedule, I thought it would be a good time to revisit and share a bit about my awesome experiences. Recipe testing gave me a really unique insight into how recipes are developed and refined for publishing. Our fearless leader, Sheri of Pork Cracklins, organized batches of recipes received from Matt Lewis (one of the BAKED owners/authors, along with Renato Poliafito) and assigned some to each tester—we were forbidden to discuss them with other testers, so as not to bias the testing process (kind of like Fight Club—just don’t talk about it). We would then each test the assigned recipes and give feedback about the ingredients, quantities, textures, flavors, colors, etc. in order to make each dessert its best possible iteration. I had to pay closer attention to recipe details than I’d ever done before— Do I use the paddle or the whisk? Should the butter be cool or softened? What’s the best percentage of chocolate? There is no fudging or estimating; it has to be exact because the published version depends on it. Some recipes were spot-on as written, some needed little tweaks (like this tiramisu), and a few needed major reworking. One of the coolest things was seeing some of my feedback incorporated into the final recipes! (For example, in this recipe, I remember reporting that there was not enough blood orange juice to soak the ladyfingers, and I was happy to see that they increased the number of oranges in the published recipe. I’m not sure if other testers had the same feedback, but it was cool nonetheless!) The finished book celebrates a year of holidays and other occasions that simply call for shameless dessert-eating—it is BAKED’s masterpiece, and it was an honor to be involved. Aaaaand… towards the back of the book is a page titled “Badass Recipe Testers” displaying all our photos—that’s how appreciative Matt and Renato were of the testers! (That’s me at the very top.)
Not my best photos, as I wasn’t planning to post these at the time, but here are, clockwise from top-left, some of my recipe testing photos: Gonzo Cake, Exceedingly Chocolaty Crinkles, Orange Pineapple Walnut Fruitcake, Brown Sugar Oatmeal Whoopie Pies, Ultra-Lemony Lemon Bundt Cake, Sweet Potato Tart (major testing fail), Salted Caramel Soufflé, Blood Orange Tiramisu.
The book’s publishing and the opening of Baked Tribeca almost coincided—the bakery wasn’t quite open yet, but it was done enough to hold the release party there, and it was fabulous. First of all, I got to meet several of the BSM members with whom I’d been baking/blogging for two years! In addition to the main party, the recipe testers were also treated to a champagne toast with Matt and Renato the night before– we finally got to discuss the recipes we had tested and got the book (and an awesome BAKED swag bag) into our hot little hands! At the main event, we were showered with a gratuitous bounty of cupcakes, brooksters, cookies, cake slices, and whoopie pies, tons of fun photo-taking, Stumptown Cold Brew cocktails, and of course fun chatting with Matt and Renato. Oh, also—burlesque dancers. Yep. The space now occupied by Baked Tribeca was once a burlesque club, and they wanted to pay homage to that history. This is also why the bakery houses maybe the world’s only cake pole, which I cannot wait to see when I visit this summer. It was very sad to leave my baking friends at the end of the evening, but so cool to have experienced this with them!
Highlights from the BAKED book release party in October 2014, clockwise from top-left: with Renato and Robyn of What’s Cooking on Planet Byn; with Erin of Starry Eyed Baker and Sheri of Pork Cracklins; with Matt; platter o’ Brooksters; burlesque dancer… before the clothes came off; with my beloved Sweet & Salty Cupcake. More photos at the bottom!
So that’s all well and good—really good; should we get back to tiramisu now? As I mentioned above, there is some debate about what I’ll call the “peripheral” ingredients of tiramisu. For example, some people use egg whites in the mascarpone layer (such as here), while others use whipped cream; some people add a little Marsala or Kahlúa, some prefer it booze-free. One of the other variations that I learned about last summer in Italy is the difference between Savoiardi and Pavesini ladyfinger biscuits. The traditional choice is Savoiardi, which are fairly easy to find in American markets. Pavesini biscuits appear to be a more modern substitution, favored by Italians for their mush-resistant texture. When taking a cooking class in Montepulciano, I first learned about these, and then a friend brought me some a few months ago and she, too, swore that they make the best tiramisu layers. I went so far as to consult an Italian blog or two, and there are differing opinions on the matter. So what’s a baker to do? Make two versions… obviously.
A note about the oranges: If you’ve never had blood oranges, do yourself a favor and hunt some down at a farmers’ market or at your local grocery store, if available; they are in season along with other citrus fruits in the winter. Their bright skins often feature a darker reddish tinge, and their interior color ranges from a bright red-orange jewel tone (sweeter) to a deep purple hue (more tart). Visually dramatic and more sweet-tart than their navel cousins, they are my favorite variety of the orange family; I find both the juice and zest more flavorful. They are particularly appropriate for this tiramisu because they not only symbolize Julius Caesar’s spilled blood, but are also native to Southern Italy, called ‘arancia rossa’ in Italian. I needed nine small oranges just for a half-batch (1 cup)– make sure you go by the quantity of juice, not the number of oranges in the recipe. The Grand Marnier (orange cognac) serves to heighten the orange flavor even more.
Since I tested this recipe, I would like to say that making it this time was a breeze… but I’ve had a lot of do-overs lately. It wasn’t catastrophic, but I was made acutely aware that one has to treat the mascarpone very gently. After beating together the egg yolks and sugar, you’ll add the mascarpone to your mixer bowl. Like cream cheese, it will “break” and lose its structure if you overbeat it. I had to make the mascarpone part of the recipe twice because I overbeat it the first time and ended up with a runny mixture rather than a fluffy, whipped one. This happened partly because I failed to notice that the mascarpone needs to be at room temperature—if it’s cold, you are almost sure to overbeat because it will take longer to incorporate the cheese into the egg yolk/sugar mixture. The key word in this part of the recipe is “dollop”– if you cannot dollop the mascarpone onto the ladyfingers, you’ve mixed too much.
Public Service Announcement: THIS IS NOT TIRAMISU.
After you get that part squared away better than I did, you’ll mix in the blood orange zest (I needed 3 small oranges) and Grand Marnier; I barely mixed with the mixer because it started to get softer again, instead folding it in by hand the rest of the way.
Set aside this mixture and whip the egg whites and salt to soft peaks in a separate bowl. The second time that I made the mixture, I think I underbeat them a bit. The mascarpone mixture softened considerably after I folded in the egg whites, so I think that stiffer peaks would actually work a little better.
You’ll then assemble the tiramisu in a casserole-type dish– I recommend glass so you can see the pretty layers. For this first attempt, I used the traditional Savoiardi ladyfingers. Dip both sides of the biscuits in that gorgeous, bright blood orange juice (mixed with more Grand Marnier) and lay them in the pan in one layer so that they are touching and fill up the entire bottom. Add half of the mascarpone mixture and smooth it evenly to the edges, then dust liberally with cocoa powder. Repeat with a second layer of dipped ladyfingers, mascarpone, and cocoa powder on the very top. I made a half-batch, and unfortunately the 7×11″ dish that I chose was an awkward size for the amount of mascarpone. My layers ended up very thin; if you cut the recipe in half, use an 8×8″ square pan so you can spread the cream mixture in layers about ½-inch think.
I was ready to say that this dessert was “just okay” after eating it the night I made it (10 hours in the fridge). My tasters loved it, but the ladyfingers did not completely soften. I then ate it the next evening, and it was so much better– everything had softened and melded together, and the orange flavor was just lovely. If I recall correctly, I think I liked it better the second day when I tested the recipe last year as well.
The first version was great, and I then set about making the second version with the Pavesini biscuits. The other thing I was hoping to improve was the texture of the mascarpone mixture. Although my re-do was better, it was still pretty soft and slightly runny. I was hoping to achieve that coveted whipped, fluffy texture. I considered folding in some freshly whipped cream, as some tiramisu recipes include this as a component, but I decided to try one more time without it.
The Pavesini biscuits are somewhat similar in texture to Savoiardi, but are much thinner. They don’t have much flavor on their own, again like the Savoiardi. I decided to make this second batch in mini trifle dishes, which would allow for more layers, and because they’re adorable. Also, the smaller Pavesini ladyfingers fit inside them quite well.
I made everything the same as in the previous version, but I let the mascarpone sit out a little longer, and the blood oranges were all of the darker variety. The texture of the mascarpone mixture was different yet again; I wonder if the cheese sat out too long? I whipped the egg whites to stiffer peaks this time, which worked well, but the mixture was a little… weepy? As I layered the Pavesini, mascarpone, and cocoa into the trifle dishes, I felt that I would have to make the recipe yet again because the texture seemed weird.
However… the next morning I examined the glass dishes carefully, and lo and behold, they looked alright! I dipped into one of them to check out the texture, and somehow it had set perfectly overnight. Also, the Pavesini biscuits softened much faster than the Savoiardi had; I had pretty, distinct layers of biscuits and cream, with cocoa and “pink” (from the orange juice) in-between.
Finally, I made some chocolate curls and shavings, and cut some blood orange rinds to sprinkle on top. If you wish to garnish your beautiful Italian dessert with chocolate shavings, as suggested, Williams-Sonoma has some handy instructions.
So which version was superior? At first, I was indifferent on the Savoiardi vs. Pavesini debate (though I loved using ladyfingers that actually came from Italy); once they were properly softened, both were lovely. However, in looking at the cross-section photos of each one, it almost looks like the thinner Pavesini biscuits sort of melted into the cream layers, yet they kept the layers distinct; the Savoiardi looks mushier. I guess I’d say that if you want a creamier tiramisu, the Pavesini will yield a more desirable texture, whereas if you want a spongier texture, Savoiardi is the way to go– they are both delicious! The mascarpone cream texture in the second batch was far superior, though the orange flavor was a little overpowering. I had bought cheaper blood oranges (the cost of re-dos adds up…), and they were the very darkest variety on the inside, which taste more tart to me; I prefer the lighter colored, sweeter ones– but you don’t really know what you’re gonna get sometimes, until you cut into them! The first batch had a slightly more delicate orange flavor. Lastly, I’d go easy on the chocolate toppings. While they gave the dessert a more elegant look, the second batch was a little too chocolaty… or maybe it just seemed that way because I ate it for breakfast. 😀
Everybody needs a little tiramisu in their lives, and sometimes it’s nice to try something a little different. While this dish is meant to celebrate the Ides of March (poor Caesar), I like to celebrate Italy and its amazing flavors all year ’round– BECAUSE ITALY. Particularly if you share my Italophile affinity, you will likely love this orange-kissed version. You can find the recipe for Blood Orange Tiramisu at Baked Sunday Mornings, and see how my baking buddies liked it as well. As for me, I suddenly feel like re-watching Season 1 of Rome… 🙂
More moments from the BAKED book release party in October 2014, clockwise from top-left: with Jordan Slocum of BAKED; cupcakes galore; silliness with Sheri and Erin; with Jenn of Deliciously Noted; Chocolate Cookies with Curry; smiles with Robyn.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.