The quest to make perfect tiramisu

Rick’s is a small and popular dessert diner in downtown Sacramento. They have the best tiramisu that I have ever tasted. Take a bite off from a generously-sized piece (which is topped with a chocolate-covered espresso bean) and then take a swig from a bottle of Henry Weinhard’s cream soda, and you will immediately be transported into a new level of gastronomic heaven. Soft, coffee-and-rum soaked layers of cake blend perfectly with cold, creamy marscapone cheese. Moist flavor explodes in your mouth with every bite, but the cake is not mushy or gushy; it holds together well on the fork.

Steve and I try tiramisu at every restaurant that offers it in the dessert menu. So far, none can compare.

For Steve’s birthday last month, I was determined to learn how to make tiramisu as close to the Rick’s Ideal as possible. There were three weekends before his birthday, and I determined to make three different recipes each weekend, then make the best one for his actual birthday. (As it turned out, I skipped a weekend but still made three recipes. Luckily the third recipe, which I made for his actual birthday weekend, turned out the best.)

Attempt #1

The first recipe I tried was from the Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine and used packaged ladyfinger cookies. I don’t have an espresso machine, so I bit the bullet and purchased 10 shots of espresso from our local Starbucks (came out to about $7). The recipe involved simmering egg yolks, sugar, and cream in a double boiler, then mixing it with a pound of marscapone cheese (fancy Italian cream cheese – about $11 for a 1 lb. container). You’re then supposed to dip the cookies into a coffee/rum/sugar mixture and layer them with the cream

Unfortunately I didn’t realize how absorbent ladyfinger cookies were, so the first few soaked up a lot more coffee than they should have, leaving my last few cookies sadly dribbled-on with the remainder of the coffee. The ladyfinger cookies look and feel rock-hard, but they’re really quite crumbly and absorbent. I also thought the directions were not very clear; I was supposed to “stir the egg mixture until it thickened,” for about seven minutes, but it never did. Was it not hot enough? Was I not stirring quickly enough? I have no idea.

After chilling the dessert, I whipped up some whipped cream, spread it on top, and sprinkled with chocolate shavings.

The result:

  • The cream was really yellow from the egg yolks, which surprised us because the tiramisu we’ve had at other places is usually a very light cream color.
  • The taste was awesome. It really tasted like Rick’s, although the texture was definitely off. There was way too much cream in comparison to the cake, and it seemed rather pudding-like.

The conclusion: Close, but not quite. Taste was good, but it would be nice to have a lighter-colored cream and a less pudding-like texture.

Attempt #2

This time, I worked with a recipe from a Spago’s Desserts book that I had checked out from the library. This recipe involved making sponge cake from scratch, which to my surprise was mostly egg whites whipped to a fluff mixed with a tiny bit of flour, egg yolk, and sugar. This was spread thinly on a baking sheet and baked to an alien-looking yellow-orange color. The recipe also involved simmering sugar and egg yolks over a double boiler, but this got mixed into both marscapone cheese as well as more whipped egg whites. There was even more cream than in the last recipe, but the cream looked more like the right color – not as brightly yellow.

I found some slightly cheaper concentrated coffee in the grocery aisle and used that instead of big-bucks Starbucks coffee. I also used rum and Kahlua instead of Kahlua and Grand Marnier because I didn’t want to spend $22 on a small bottle of G.M.!

The usual dip, layer, chill, and add whipped cream and chocolate on top, and we had our results:

  • Definitely not as good. The quality of the coffee was probably a big factor.
  • The sponge cake, despite its name, seemed to hardly soak up any liquid; the coffee just seemed to bounce right off its glossy alien-looking yellow-orange hide. The dessert turned out very dry, and the sponge cake was chewy and tough.
  • The texture and color of the cream mixture was much better than the first recipe.

The conclusion: Use good coffee for good flavor. The whipped egg whites in the cream seemed to help a lot. The sponge cake was no good.

Attempt #3

Two days before Steve’s birthday, I started on my third tiramisu, this time, using The Joy of Cooking as my reference. Again, I made my own sponge cake, but an additional step which was missing from Tiramisu #2 was turning the sponge cake into ladyfingers by cutting it into slices and then baking until it was crisp. This made a huge difference; the crisp ladyfingers were drier and soaked up the coffee-rum mixture much better. (I was too lazy to walk the extra 40 steps to go to Starbucks, so I got several shots of espresso from the local coffee shop that Steve and I were hanging out at on the morning that I made it.)

The cream portion again called for eggs and sugar simmered in a double boiler. It called for 1/3 cup of sweet Marsala, but I didn’t have it and hoped it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. Then, it got mixed with the marscapone and whipped cream, which gave a softer texture but the same lighter color as egg whites would have.

I didn’t follow the recipe exactly — it had slightly different layering techniques and no whipped cream on top, but I followed the layering/whipped cream/shaved chocolate technique that I had used for the others so that we could compare.

The results:

  • Sponge cake/ladyfinger texture – perfect.
  • The coffee/alcohol taste could have been a little improved, I think. It was a little weak.
  • Cream texture and taste – perfect.

Conclusion: The best one yet. If we could combine the strong taste of the first tiramisu with everything else from the third, we think it would be pretty close to Rick’s!

Overall experience: It was pretty fun to be a “test cook” and try out different recipes. However, I wished I had some test-cook interns who could do all the dishes for me:

  • Kitchenaid bowl – washed three times; once after whipping egg whites for sponge cake, once after whipping egg whites or cream, and again after whipping cream.
  • Kitchenaid whisk attachment – washed three times
  • Small bowl with flour mixture for sponge cake
  • Baking sheet for sponge cake
  • Knife used to cut sponge cake into ladyfinger pieces (rather sticky at the end)
  • Medium bowl (placed over simmering water) for cream mixture
  • Medium bowl for coffee mixture
  • Baking dish for holding tiramisu
  • Knife and cutting board used for shaving chocolate
  • Many various measuring cups and spoons
  • Serving dishes and spoons

Onward and upward!

I’m planning to make tiramisu one last time, this time, with Starbucks espresso and Marsala wine in the cream (I finally located it at our local grocery store next to other sweet dessert wines). It’s very possible that those two things will make the difference and give us our perfect tiramisu-at-home recipe! I will definitely blog about the results when I stop procrastinating, make it, and taste the results.

But for now, here’s a photo of my almost perfect home-made tiramisu:

Almost-perfect tiramisu

7 thoughts on “The quest to make perfect tiramisu

  1. yum! i have some matzoh tiramitsu recipes i want to test drive for next year. and some other recipes. YUM! do you have an amazon wishlist that i’ve missed?😉 (as she plots and plans)🙂

  2. Mascarpone can now be found (very affordably) at Costco Warehouse stores. It’s located near the wine section, by the better cheeses. Beats the price you mentioned by miles! Thanks for the recipe tips!

  3. Thanks for the tip, Shannon!! I’ll have to check it out next time I visit Costco (which will probably be soon).

    I do plan on making tiramisu again, and I think your comment just motivated me to do it sooner than later!

  4. The best and real way to make tirimisu is with Grandmarnier. That’s how the Italian’s make it. I’ve always had great success using it. You can also make a substitute marscapone with whipped cream and cream cheese. Go to the joy of baking..

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