Big Little Recipes

The Easiest Tiramisu Ever, Thanks to Toast

February 18, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re toast-ifying dessert.

The best tiramisu I ever had was at my wedding. It was a layer cake, with lots of booze and whipped cream, baked by our friends and covered in flowers and, as Justin smoosh-fed me a bite, everyone broke into hoots and hollers, and then someone handed me a martini. Which, in retrospect, I realize is an unrealistic standard for any dessert to meet.

Technically, tiramisu translates to “pick me up” or “carry me up” in Italian, though it also goes by “the dessert that took the ’80s by storm.” Decades later, it’s still hard to find an Italian-American restaurant menu without one. The ingredient list is espresso-jolted, as you’d expect from the name, but also difficult to pin down: Sponge cake or ladyfingers? Marsala wine or rum? Mascarpone or zabaglione or both? Cocoa or chocolate or both? Who’s to say? All of these get layered on top of each other, but less like my wedding cake, and more like a trifle.

The best tiramisu of my life, mere minutes before it was devoured by 40 of our loved ones. Photo by Mark Maya

In any case, it’s a lot of work, and not something I’d ever make at home.

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“For better or worse, indiscriminate application of familiar names is a characteristic of the author's work.”
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This tiramisu toast is the exception. It scratches up the ingredient list and hop-skip-jumps most of the steps—but still turns out something sugary, boozy, and caffeine-y for whenever you’ve had a day.

Instead of sponge cake or ladyfingers, neither of which I regularly have around (I mean, do you?), I turn to sliced bread. From a distance, this seems like a sorry substitute for sweet, fluffy cake, but not so fast. If you get a crusty, tangy sourdough or even a buttery, tender brioche, you’re most-of-the-way to something wonderful. Just think of French toast or bread pudding or grilled chocolate sandwiches.


Here, you’ll brush the bread with butter, shower it with sugar, and broil it until the top starts to crackle and blister, like a crème brûlée shell. (Stay close by during this step. All broilers are different and, if yours is like mine, that sugar will go from caramelized to burnt in under a minute.) Once it’s out of the oven, hit it with a shot of Kahlúa—basically rum, sugar, coffee, and vanilla, aka most of the things you’d expect from tiramisu—and let that sink in for a minute or two.

Now you’re probably expecting me to say: Dollop mascarpone on top. And you could! But I really like crème fraîche, for its slouchiness and sourness. Maybe you want softly whipped cream or even whole-milk Greek yogurt? There’s no wrong answer here—it’s just toast. You could finish things with a pinch of cocoa powder or grating of dark chocolate. I like cocoa for its unapologetic bitterness.

And that’s it. Call it a not-dessert dessert or a weeknight dessert, which really ought to be as much of a thing as a weeknight dinner, if you ask me.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Sabina P. February 18, 2020
It sounds delicious - but it has not much in common with Italian tiramisu...
Smaug February 18, 2020
For better or worse, indiscriminate application of familiar names is a characteristic of the author's work.