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How to Make Tiramisu Without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Tiramisu: A classic that you can adapt.

Tiramisu is a classic. A dessert with certain proportions, certain subtleties, it's a classic that's rarely messed with for good reason. But once you have the basics together, a little variation here and there using what's on hand or what's in season is not a bad idea.

If you have eggs, sugar, and cocoa in your pantry, you're already halfway there. You'll need a couple of packets of long ladyfinger or Pavesini cookies -- why these particular cookies? They turn sponge-cake springy when dipped in just the right amount of liquid. Then you need some mascarpone -- or, try it the way my Tuscan mother-in-law likes to make it using ricotta (she uses half and half, it makes a somewhat less dense, lighter tasting cream). And then you need some sort of tempting liquid, usually a watered-down liqueur like rum, sweet wine like marsala or vin santo, strong coffee, or a combination. To top it all off, you'll want a bit of chocolate factor with either bittersweet cocoa powder or grated or chopped chocolate. 

More: Another regional Italian classic? Polenta Cookies.

And those variations I mentioned? How about a matcha tiramisu, where strong, powdered Japanese green tea is used for both the sage-hued cookie-dipping liquid and also takes the place of the cocoa powder? Or a hazelnut tiramisu, where a splash of frangelico is used for dipping the cookies and chopped nuts decorate the top? In the summer, try a strawberry tiramisu -- simply marinate the fruit in a splash of liqueur (Cointreau or Grand Marnier goes nicely) and a sprinkle of sugar, then use the liquid to soak the cookies and the fruit to top the tiramisu at the last moment (so it doesn't split the cream) before serving.

Kept simple, it's an adaptable classic. Here's how to do it.

How to Make Tiramisu Without a Recipe

1. In a shallow bowl, pour your liquid of choice (rum and coffee is a winning combination here). Dip ladyfingers on one side only into the liquid then place them side by side in a single layer to cover entirely the base of your chosen container. A rectangular Pyrex dish is the usual but the very first tiramisu were actually round -- a springform cake pan works nicely for this. You'll probably need to break or cut the cookies to the right length to get into all the nooks and crannies. You can brush extra coffee or rum over the biscuits to ensure they absorb enough liquid without getting soggy.

2. Separate three eggs and whisk together the yolks, two tubs of mascarpone (or try it with ricotta), and about 3/4 cup of fine sugar. A splash of rum, marsala, or sweet wine does not go astray here if you're making a boozy tiramisu. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl to stiff peaks and fold them gently into the mascarpone to make a smooth, slightly sloppy, surprisingly airy cream. Place a thick layer roughly the same height as the cookies of mascarpone cream over the biscuits and smooth over.

3. Then add another layer of the dipped ladyfingers. Continue layering until you finish with a layer of mascarpone cream. Chill overnight so the flavors have time to mingle and settle and the cookies have time to absorb the liquid and become appropriately spongey.

4. Before serving, top with heavy-handed layer of sifted bittersweet cocoa powder or your best dark chocolate, finely grated or chopped. Buon appetito!

Tell us: how would you riff on the classic tiramisu?

We're looking for contributors! Email [email protected] and tell us the dish you make in your sleep, without a recipe.

Photos by Emiko Davies

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