Despite tiramisu’s simple recipe, its origin story isn’t so straightforward.
With rich, pillowy cocoa-topped layers of sweetened mascarpone and ladyfingers dipped in espresso, it’s no wonder that tiramisu has become one of Italy and the world’s most iconic desserts. And while this classic dish, with a name that translates to “pick me up” or “cheer me up,” is guaranteed to do just that to anyone who consumes it, making a truly authentic Italian tiramisu can be harder than you’d think.
While there are countless modern adaptations of this universally beloved treat—from Lemon Tiramisu, to S’mores Tiramisu, and even stout-infused Beeramisu—nothing can quite compare to the classic Italian version, which calls for a short and unfussy list of ingredients. However, despite tiramisu’s simple recipe, its origin story isn’t so straightforward.
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Unlike the cannoli or sfogliatelle, the tiramisu hasn’t been a huge part of Italian food culture for centuries, and despite the dish’s ubiquity the origin of tiramisu has been a matter of debate for as long as the dessert has been gracing menus. By some accounts, the credit for the invention of tiramisu goes to an Italian chef and restaurateur named Speranza Garatti, who served the dish under the name “il coppa imperiale” beginning in the early 1960s. However, another restaurateur named Ado Campeol allegedly adapted Garatti’s original dessert and renamed it “tiramisu,” thereby establishing his restaurant as the true birthplace of the famed dessert. Yet, both claims could be false, as some Italian historians have suggested the origin of the dessert goes all the way back 17th century Siena, when it was made for a celebration in honor of a grand duke.
In spite of its mysterious origins, tiramisu first made its way to the U.S. in the 1980s, and was quickly popularized by chefs like Lidia Bastianich, who said the dessert was reminiscent of one her grandmother would make in her childhood referred to as “tira me su.”
While the identity of the true inventor of tiramisu might never be settled, what’s indisputable among Italian chefs is the authentic way of making this classic. Though over the years the dessert has been adapted to incorporate ingredients like whipped cream, nuts, alcoholic spirits, Nutella, chocolate, and much more, the purist’s tiramisu is far less complicated.
The first rule in creating a truly authentic tiramisu is to keep the ingredient list short and simple. Your tiramisu should consist of just ladyfingers (aka savoiardi), mascarpone cheese, egg yolks, granulated sugar, espresso, and cocoa powder. Note that the classic tiramisu recipe doesn’t incorporate heavy whipping cream or other flavor or texture additives like many modern recipes.
Though the shape of the biscuits might favor a square or rectangular pan, the classic tiramisu shape is circular, and is typically prepared in a clear dish to properly display the beautiful layers.
To begin crafting your dessert, beat together 1/4 cup sugar and 6 egg yolks until they’ve doubled in volume, and then whisk in 2 cups of mascarpone cheese a few tablespoons at a time until the mixture has become smooth and creamy. Separately beat together 4 egg whites and ¼ cup sugar until they form stiff peaks; then fold the egg white into the mascarpone, which will add the signature lightness to the indulgent mixture.
Pour your espresso or dark Italian coffee—which has been freshly brewed and cooled to room temperature—into a shallow dish and begin to dip one side of your ladyfingers (which can be purchased online or in the bakery aisle of the grocery store) into the liquid. Be careful to not entirely soak the biscuit, which will result in a soggy final product. Line the bottom of your dish with the coated ladyfingers until completely covered, and spread a layer of the mascarpone mixture over the finger-shaped cakes. Then, dust the layer with cocoa powder before repeating this process again, ultimately using between 36-48 ladyfingers depending on the size of your serving dish.
Once you’ve reached the top of your dish, cover the tiramisu and let it refrigerate for a minimum of 3 hours, but preferably 8 or more, which will allow the biscuits to soften from the mascarpone and espresso, creating a delicately spongy cake. While a dash of liqueur in the mascarpone mixture or chocolate shavings on top are not uncommon, getting the most authentic taste of one of Italy’s most famous dishes is all about keeping it super simple.
For those who are weary of consuming raw eggs, opt for a modernized take like this recipe, which utilizes whipping cream in place of the egg. Or, if you’re ready to completely throw away the rulebook, try an adventurous adaptation like Tiramisu Ice Cream Cake, Pumpkin-Espresso Tiramisu, Mango Tiramisu with Raspberry Sauce, or Tiramisu Bread Pudding. Whichever way to eat it—traditional or outside the box—we’re pretty certain you won’t get any complaints from anyone who gets a slice.