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The Origins of Tiramisu

Courtesans? Perhaps, But When?

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The Ingredients for Tiramisu

The Ingredients for Tiramisu

© Kyle Phillips Licensed to About.Com
Someone on an American food-related listserve I subscribe to asked if anyone knew the origins of Tiramisu, a seriously decadent creamy dessert that combines chocolate, coffee, savoiardi cookies, and mascarpone cheese.

I said I had heard it was from Treviso (in the Veneto), and relatively recent, and a couple others said the same, adding that the recipe was developed in the 60s by Treviso's Ristorante El Toulà.

Someone else instead said she had found a story about how Tiramisu was invented by Sienese pastry chefs in the late 1600s to honor Grand Duke Cosimo III De'Medici, who was known for his sweet tooth.

I looked around a bit, and found a number of web pages with the Sienese origin; the texts are pretty much identical (said text also appears in Volume 12 of La Repubblica's Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, on page 285). Briefly, they say the Sienese developed the dessert for the Duke on the occasion of a State visit, and initially called it Zuppa del Duca, or Duke's Pudding. The zuppa was a terrific success, especially among courtesans, who found it both stimulating and aphrodisiac, and thus enjoyed it before trysts; with time they took to calling it tiramisu, or pick me up. Subsequently, the story goes, tiramisu spread to Venice and the Veneto, where it remained a local treat until it suddenly gained national popularity in the late 70s.

It's a nice story, but I have my doubts, for a number of reasons.
  • First, historical:
    Artusi, who gives a number of Tuscan and Venetian dessert recipes in La Scienza in Cucina (published in 1891), doesn't mention it; given his penchant for going off on tangents and telling stories, it would have been a perfect recipe for him to include, had he known about it.

    Nor does it appear in Il Talisamno della Felicità (published in 1929), and while it is true that Ada Boni was less given to tangents than Artusi, it's also true that she was aiming Il Talismano squarely at the emerging middle class, and would certainly have included a dessert this rich, tasty, and easy to make had she been aware of it.

    And, it doesn't appear in La Mia Cucina, a comprehensive 10-volume set De Agostini published in 1978. Again, had they been aware of it, they would certainly have included it.

    The final bit of historic evidence comes from American food writer Nancy Jenkins, who, despite having lived in Italy from 1975 to 1980, first encountered tiramisu in 1983, on the island of Torcello in the Laguna Veneta.

  • Cookbooks don't bear out the legend, but there is also the cheese:
    Though Mascarpone, one of the major ingredients in tiramisu, is now readily available throughout Italy, it was once a specialty of Lombardia, and more specifically Lodi and Abbiategrasso, towns not far from Milano. It's difficult to see how a cheese as delicate as Mascarpone could have made it from Lombardia to Siena in the days before refrigeration or rapid transportation without spoiling.

  • And finally, there is the safety factor:
    Tiramisu made following the classic recipe contains both raw eggs and mascarpone. While raw eggs in their shells keep quite well, raw egg in an uncooked cream becomes dangerous if it is not kept cold. So does Mascarpone: a number of cases of botulism have been traced to mascarpone that was allowed to warm up at some point between leaving the dairy and reaching the table. Given the state of refrigeration in the late 1600s, enjoying a bowl of tiramisu would have been a risky proposition indeed.

So I think the recipe is recent, and am inclined to believe the folks at El Toulà; when I called they told me they don't remember the name of the chef who first made it, sometime in the 30s, but that the clients of a nearby House of Ill Repute used to enjoy it as a ricostituente, or pick-me-up after their labors. Hence the name.

And what about Zuppa Del Duce?

According to Giovanni Righi Parente, author of La Cucina Toscana, it's essentially zuppa inglese (English trifle):

Line the bottom of a tureen with thin slices of pan di Spagna (genoise, or pound cake will work as substitutes) and sprinkle them with alkermes (a spicy deep red liqueur), crème de cacao, white rum, or any other liqueur you like, so long as it's sweet.

Pour over it a pastry cream made with 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk, 200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 2 whole eggs, separated; beat the yolks and whip the whites, and combine both with the cold milk before setting it on the stove. Cook, stirring gently over a low flame until the mixture thickens, without letting it boil, lest it curdle.

If you instead want to make a quick cream, heat the milk, sugar and flour until the mixture thickens, remove it from the burner, and when it has cooled beat the yolks and add them to the mixture (no whites here). In terms of flavoring, a vanilla bean heated with the milk (a teaspoon of vanilla extract will also work).

Chill the tureen with the pan di Spagna and the cream in the refrigerator, and after about an hour cover it with a layer of whipped cream, sprinkling all with grated chocolate and finely chopped canditi (candied fruit peels).

No Mascarpone, but it will be good.

More Tiramisu:
My favorite recipe (wife Elisabetta's)
Sergio's Traditional Recipe
Sergio's newfangled Spiced Pumpkin Tiramisu
Leonardo Romanelli's Illustrated Tiramisu Recipe
A No-Egg No-Cheese Variation, which neatly sidesteps all the health issues


Winding Down, Bobby Rovegno observes,
While Tiramisu was undoubtedly invented relatively recently in the Veneto, the origins can be traced back to Zuppa Inglese . Which of course is the Italian version of the even older English Trifle. The similarities are obvious with the substitution of the mascarpone egg mixture for the custard and the Savoiardi for the cake although many people also make tiramisu with cake. On a side note I dislike coffee so I substitute apricot liquor for it. Certainly not traditional but delicious none the less.

A very good point I hadn't thought of.
Kyle Phillips, Your Guide to Italian Cooking

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