Tiramisu is easily the most exported Italian dessert. Many don’t know that it was first devised in Treviso, at the restaurant Le Becchiere. A recent dispute between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia has put a question mark on its actual authorship, stating that there are actually four original versions: two Venetian (from the Treviso area), and two from the neighbouring region, and that all are legit.
Whatever the answer, a few crucial points should be borne in mind when attempting tiramisu at home. Good mascarpone is the first. Fresh handmade artisan mascarpone does make a difference, but it’s also hard to find, so any mascarpone is better than none. In case you can’t find it at all, you can easily make it at home. Substituting it with ricotta, cream cheese or similar, on the other hand, is not appropriate.
Another crucial point is the presence or absence of liqueur: purists say no booze, but it’s ultimately up to you. If you like a drop of brandy in your coffee, go ahead. Biscuits: ladyfingers, nothing else. Finally, a word on the coffee: for tiramisu, Italian-style percolated (Moka pot) coffee is best. A concentrated cafetière brew works, too, while filter or instant coffee won’t stand up to the task.
The recipe I’m sharing is for Mum’s signature tiramisu — a version that has always met with everybody’s approval. With time and practice (she pulls it off pretty much any time pudding is required), she seems to have found a way to achieve the perfect ratio of cream to biscuits, with just enough coffee to make the biscuits soft but never stodgy. Her mascarpone cream, however heretical, is quite remarkable.
Valeria Necchio shares her tiramisu recipe with us here.
In Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen, Valeria Necchio shares enchanting and often, deeply personal stories of the recipes she grew up with, and that she cooks today.
Necchio, now a photographer, cook and food writer, grew up in the Venetian countryside, close to grandparents "who lived and breathed the traditional knowledge bound to the land and its rituals". When she married and moved to London, food was a way to remain connected to home. Gradually it became more and more a central part of her life.
(Get the recipe for her sweet potato tart here)
Although the hundred recipes in the book are spread across sweet and savoury, anyone who loves italian dolci will find themselves with plenty to smile at in Veneto. Necchio shares not just recipes from her mother and grandmother, but the stories of why these particular recipes remain close to her heart - the effort involved in her grandmother's twice-monthly baking in the communal bakery next to the village mill ("Grandma had to load her bicycle with a fortress of flour and branches and push it all for six miles, all the way to the mill"); how a visit to a scent-filled garden at a tiny village in the Euganean Hills south of Padua changed her mind about citrus.
Or the yearly ritual of her grandmother's doughnuts.
The big Venetian carnival fry-up plot unfolds every year in a similar way. On the night before Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras, the phone rings. It’s Grandma. She’s made fritole, she says, screaming into the receiver as usual, sure that I’ll hear her better if she does. ‘Can you come and pick them up?’ she asks. I look outside: it’s a gloomy, wet, foggy February night; but then again, yes, I could make the effort for a bowl of doughnuts.
Fruity and spicy, Necchio's Venetian doughnuts are little balls of bliss
I bundle up and go out. Grandma lives down the road from us, a one-minute walk door to door. I find her downstairs, as always when she’s spent the whole day cooking. She’s busy cleaning up, traces of sugar on the floor. The air is filled with a biting scent, a mix of yeast and exhausted frying oil. On the table are three small platoons of aluminium trays neatly covered with flowery kitchen paper. She grabs a tray from each group and presses them into my hands: one filled with paper-thin squares (crostoli); one with walnut-sized balls (favette), and one with a pile of spongy, pillowy fritole. ‘I thought you just made fritole?’ ‘Yes, well, since I had the oil going . . . ’
Venetians are religious about their Carnival. It’s a century-old recurrence that can’t be ignored, not just in the city but in the countryside, too. Kids dress up and parade, and everybody stuffs their faces with fried treats. I like the Carnival triplet of crostoli, favette and fritole (or frittelle), and I like that Grandma has taken on the chore of frying up a storm for the whole family, year in and year out. Of the three, fritole are her strongest — soft, perfumed with anise and citrus, and surprisingly un-greasy.
The images, too, are hers. "I wanted Veneto to tell a story that would feel personal, and to do so not just through my tales and recipes, but also through my images," she writes on her blog, in a post about the joy, the effort, the rollercoaster of emotions, and what the striking cover represents.
But what many readers will fall in love with are the words. The introductions to Necchio's recipes are as integral as the recipes themselves.
Any Italian will tell you that they grew up eating home-made apple cake for breakfast or la merenda, the afternoon snack. So will I.
Grandma calls hers fugassa, because it’s soft like a focaccia. The hefty dose of eggs makes it airy, but substantial, while the apples give it a semblance of wholesomeness that allows for second helpings.
Golden Delicious is the apple of choice for many Italian nonne. They appear to have the perfect texture for the task — neither hard nor floury nor mealy — and just the right dose of juiciness and sugar. Some excellent ones come to Veneto from the valleys of Trentino, but Grandma always preferred to buy them from the fruit grower down the road; he’d always throw a couple more in her bag for free, enough to make her happy.
Cook the book
My grandmother's version of apple cake is soft and airy.
Good, creamy mascarpone cream, ladyfingers that are only dipped (not drowned) in coffee and sticking with simplicity will yield a tiramisu that puts store-bought versions to shame.
Drawing similarities with American pumpkin pie, the sweet potato pie uses white sweet potatoes, and has a custardy and creamy texture, without being overpoweringly sweet. The Italian sugar pastry is reason to make this tart in itself.
The Italian name literally means 'big crumbly one', a wink to this tart's resemblance to a big slab of buttery shortbread. Very simple to make, just break it into chunks at the end of the meal, and serve with coffee.
For Carnival, my Grandma fries up a storm for the whole family, year in and year out. Her frìtole are spongy, pillowy and perumed with anise and citrus.
Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen by Valeria Necchio (Guardian Faber, hb, $39.99) is out now.