The Tiramisu that Almost Wasn’t

27 Jan

When it was time to head home for the holidays, I had about 3 minutes to figure out what I was going to make for Christmas Eve dessert at MrKef’s family’s house. Considering that Staten Island is the epicenter of Italian America (sorry, Arthur Avenue), I decided to make Italy’s most famous sweet export: tiramisu. Without any time to prep at home in DC, I figured I could do all the shopping up there early on Christmas Eve morning, throw the trifle-like dish together and be done with the whole thing with enough time for it to sit and soak up all that delicious coffee-and-liquor flavor. What could go wrong? Ha.

I think the real determinate of a good tiramisu are homemade lady fingers, but my willingness to reinvent the wheel is low these days, so I planned to buy some delicious made-fresh-in-the-bakery-by-a-nonna-that-morning ladyfingers SOMEWHERE on Staten Island. Unfortunately, it turns out that’s not how the home of Wu Tang rolls–none of the bakeries I visited/called were willing to sell just the lady fingers… but they would kindly sell me the already-made $60 tiramisu. Grazie, ma no.  Realizing this wasn’t going to be my most authentic tiramisu ever, I was CERTAIN I could at least find the Stella D’oro packaged ones in any grocery store with this concentration of people eating 7 fishes on Christmas Eve… only to find that I was wrong again. In fact, when I asked the kind teenager at Stop’n’Shop (whose name tag read “Giovanna,” for what it’s worth) where I could find the lady fingers, she happily pointed me over to the berry section, where I realized she was talking about these:

… friggin kill me. But, I decided to go with the flow for once in my damn life, and threw them in my cart without creating too much of a scene, when what I really wanted to do was this:

Then, of course, I couldn’t find the Italian dessert wine the recipe called for in THREE different liquor stores (including one named Pete MILANO’S, for crying out loud). At this point, I had pretty much abandoned all hope that this was going to be a successful dessert, headed back to MrKef’s house a bit dejected, and put to use the weird assortment of ingredients I wanted and those that I wound up with. Somehow, I came up with this:


Not bad for a lot of pinch hitting! It looked better than most of my creations, but I wasn’t 100% sure it was going to taste great. After a lot of worrying and preambling, I dished it out after dinner, and- to my great surprise- it got universal and enthusiastic thumbs up. MrKef’s dad is a seriously discerning consumer of confections, and when even HE went in for seconds, I let out a sigh of relief and decided to claim victory after all. Staten Island, you won the battle, but you did not win the war.

My original intent was to follow Jamie Oliver’s recipe— reflected below are the many changes I had to make. The great news is that –once you accumulate the damn ingredients– this guy basically puts itself together, the idiosyncrasies of Italian Americans on Staten Island not withstanding.



  • about 20 pre-made dessert shells
  • two 16-oz containers mascarpone cheese
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 7 oz muscato
  • 1 small Dunkin Donuts black coffee
  • about 1/3 c kahlua
  • 7 oz good-quality white chocolate, melted
  • Cocoa powder, for dusting
  • 1 bar good-quality dark chocolate, for shavings


  1. Using a stand mixer or electric beater, combine the mascarpone, sugar, egg yolks, and wine until smooth.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine coffee and Kahlua.
  3. Arrange 4-5 dessert shells in a single layer in your dish- this could be a trifle dish, deep pyrex pan, or whatever you have at hand. Drizzle the coffee/Kahlua mixture over the cakes–I tend to give the bottom layer a pretty heavy drizzle and get lighter as I go up. Then, drizzle the white chocolate over the cakes, then a layer of mascarpone mixture. Repeat until you get to the top of your dish, making sure that the final layer is mascarpone.
  4. Dust with cocoa powder. Scrape a large spoon across the back of the chocolate bar towards you to make shavings– there is really no rhyme or reason to this, but I suggest keeping the wrapper on and just opening up the back of the wrapper to avoid melting the chocolate all over your hands. Arrange shavings over the top.
  5. Let sit in a cool place or refrigerator for at least 6 hours before serving. If chilling in the fridge, pull out about 30 minutes prior to serving.

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