I live in a small Tuscan town, the sort of slow-paced one where, on seemingly random days of the week, the local alimentari (the tiny shop that sells everything from prosciutto to bread to laundry detergent) is closed—Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, all day Sunday. Forget trying to buy anything on a Monday morning. The whole town is shut down. And this is where the idea of trying to make my own ladyfingers, known as savoiardi in Italian, came about: in a dessert emergency.
Ladyfingers are widely used in dessert making, namely for soaking up rum-splashed coffee and layering into a glass dish with sweetened, egg-enriched mascarpone cream for tiramisu, the dessert that spurred my dessert emergency, or the trifle-like zuppa inglese. My Tuscan mother-in-law prefers to use Pavesini, which are thin, finger-shaped children's cookies, but being thin, they get soggy very quickly and they just don't have the wonderful soft and springy texture of perfectly rehydrated savoiardi. So despite there being a supply of Pavesini in the house that day, I was adamant. I needed ladyfingers.
When I realised that ladyfingers are nothing more than my favorite pan di spagna (an Italian sponge) recipe, in finger form, it was a revelation. Ladyfingers are simply sponge cake, dried out so they last a long time in the pantry and made in a convenient small size, which makes layering them into glasses or a wide dish for other desserts very handy. A cookie with a lot of history (they date back to the 1300s), they are named for the House of Savoy, the last monarchs of Italy, so they are especially tied to the regions where the Savoys had significant history—Sicily, Sardinia, and Piemonte in particular (in these places they are also known as raffiolini, pistoccus de caffè, or biscotti al cucchiaio—or "drop cookies"—respectively).
They're relatively easy to make (and quick to bake), but you do need a bit of skill with a piping bag to get the right shape—it's quite a floppy, runny batter so it's worth doing a few for practice (and you can always put the batter back in the bag, carefully; the heating of the eggs makes it quite stable). Otherwise, try the drop cookie method for round ones, which are still just as tasty and also perfectly suited for dipping into coffee or custard to eat just like that, as well as layered in desserts.
Feel free to use your favorite sponge recipe, if you have one—otherwise try the one below. (Need gluten-free lady fingers? This is my favorite gluten-free sponge recipe, inspired by an Italian recipe from 1891). Once you have your homemade ladyfingers, why not also make your own mascarpone (it's a thousand times better than a store-bought one) for the ultimate homemade tiramisu?
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) superfine sugar, plus more for sprinkling
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup (120 grams) plain flour, sifted
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
How else do you use ladyfingers? Share your ideas in the comments!