Tiramisu and the Art of Birthday Happiness

Tiramisu with Marsala and Crème Fraîche 


Birthdays are funny things. Aside from showing the world how well we’re accepting our advancing years with dignity and how gracefully we’re able to hide our disappointment that none of those presents was really what we wanted, our birthdays give the world a window on our fundamental relationship with food. In fact, I have this theory that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by what they choose to eat on their birthday. Not the exact dish, mind you, but the type of food – do you prefer going out on your special day, or staying in? Do you cook for yourself or prefer others to do it? And most importantly, do you want something elaborate, unusual and exciting, or are comfort and familiarity more your style?

Take my case, for example. I normally have a quite acute case of culinary ADD, but when I have a birthday this tendency spirals completely out of control. Birthdays, for me, are all about the new: new flavors, new recipes, new surroundings, new experiences. If we go out, the last place you’ll find me is a restaurant I’ve dined at before; if I cook, you can bet it’ll be something I’ve never made. Very occasionally this results in a truly fabulous meal; far more often, however, it results in disaster, either because the restaurant is an unmitigated flop or because the stress of pulling off kitchen acrobatics at such a psychologically fragile time (it’s the biorhythms, my stepfather says) ends in emotional meltdown. The last birthday I spent with my family, for example, I know I cooked for everyone but I have fewer memories of the actual dishes I made than I do of the waterfall of tears I shed into them. And last year when I dragged Manuel to a restaurant I had been eying for months, we were subjected to possibly the rudest service I have ever experienced – which unfortunately made an otherwise forgettable meal quite unforgettable. No matter how many failures I have, though, I can’t shake my belief that lurking just around the next corner is the perfect birthday meal, and all I have to do to find it is keep trying.

For Manuel, however, this couldn’t be further from what he wants. For him, a birthday is all about the familiar and the predictable. It’s about having something he knows he’ll like because he’s had it a million times before. It’s also about having everyone as relaxed and able to enjoy the occasion as he. Barbecues used to be a favorite for this reason; since we’ve moved to a barbecue-less housing, he opts for something equally casual like nachos or fajitas. And dessert – if he even wants any at all – is usually even simpler.

Last week he and I were discussing his upcoming birthday. "How about osso buco?" I asked, lifting my nose from the stack of cookbooks I was mining for ideas. "Or something with rabbit? Or how about I track down some fresh foie gras?"

He shook his head vehemently. "You know that the last thing I want is to have you spending my birthday in the kitchen. And no matter what you claim, if I let you cook any of those things that’s bound to happen."

I sighed. "Okay, well at least let me make you a birthday cake. I can make it in advance so I’m not occupied on your birthday itself. Maybe something like this?" I asked, flashing him a photo of a towering Pierre Hermé behemoth along with a hopeful smile.

He looked thoughtfully at the picture. "You know what I would really like?"

"What?" I said eagerly, praying that the glimpse of gratuitous cake porn had done the trick.

"A tiramisu."

They probably heard my groan all the way to London.

"Tiramisu? But that’s what you always want! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve made you a stupid tiramisu," I grumbled.

Unfazed, he just smiled and said, "I know. But that’s what I want."

It was his birthday, after all, so I couldn’t really argue. I made him the tiramisu he wanted, and like always it was a breeze, something so familiar it’s an instinct rather than a recipe. And of course he loved it, like he always does. But the funny thing was that contrary to my expectations, I did too. You see, something I tend to forget because of my constant search for new thrills is not only how good the familiar can taste, but how much better things get with a little practice. I’ve been making tiramisu so many times that I simply take for granted how wonderful the mascarpone tastes balanced with the acidity of crème fraîche, how much better cocoa melds with the filling than grated chocolate, and how much more fragrant the marsala seems mixed in with rich, cold cream rather than sharing space with espresso in the soaking liquid. And I never would have discovered any of these things if someone hadn’t been compelling me to keep making it year after year.

But the main thing was, Manuel was happy. There were no surprises, no rude waiters or large tabs for mediocre food – just a meal he’d knew he’d like, some relaxed time spent with friends and family, and a fuss-free dessert that everybody loved. And it got me thinking – maybe there is something to be said for knowing exactly what you’ll get on your birthday. Maybe it’s worth sacrificing that slim chance of gastronomic nirvana – with all its attendant pressures and expectations – for the guarantee of simple satisfaction. Maybe it’s time to start re-evaluating my own conceptions about what makes a birthday special, and ditch the rollercoaster I ride year after year in search of that elusive perfect meal. A few years ago I would have laughed at the very suggestion, but hey, as long as I’m getting older anyway, a little wisdom is the least I can show for it.

Tiramisu with Marsala and Crème Fraîche

This isn’t the easiest of tiramisus, but trust me, it really isn’t difficult either. Instead of the usual mixture of mascarpone cheese and raw eggs, I first boil a mixture of sugar and marsala into a thick syrup, which accomplishes two things: its heat effectively cooks the egg yolks (though it’s still a good idea to use the best quality organic eggs for this) and it also allows a healthy dose of marsala to be incorporated in the filling without making it too liquid. Traditionalists will also probably balk at my use of crème fraîche, but I think a touch of acidity is just what all that heavy mascarpone needs. Feel free, however, to adjust the relative proportions to your taste; I use 250g of each since that’s the size of the containers they come in. As for the soaking booze, use whatever you have on hand, or if you’re going to be serving this to little people, you can certainly leave it out entirely. By the way, my favorite marsala for desserts is a variety known as cremovo – it’s a sweet marsala that has been flavored with egg yolks, which only sounds strange until you discover how heavenly it tastes.
Serves: 8

1 cup (200g) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) sweet marsala
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 cup (250g) mascarpone cheese
1 cup (250g) crème fraîche
1 cup (250ml) heavy or double cream, whipped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 (375ml) cups espresso or very strong coffee, cold
4-6 tablespoons rum or brandy (or to taste)
18-36 savoiardi or ladyfingers (the number will vary depending on the size of the cookies and the pan)
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons powdered/icing sugar

fresh or frozen raspberries, mac
erated with a few tablespoons of sugar (optional)

Combine the sugar and marsala in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Continue to boil, swirling the pan occasionally to encourage even heating, until a candy thermometer registers 250F/120C, or a drop forms a firm ball in a cup of cold water – about 5-7 minutes.

While the syrup is cooking, put the egg yolks in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if you’re using an electric mixer) and beat at high speed for about 5 minutes, until they triple in volume and fall in a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted. As soon as the sugar syrup has reached the correct temperature, take it off the heat and immediately begin to drizzle it in a thin, steady stream down the inside of the bowl with the egg yolks, beating constantly. Beat until all the syrup has been incorporated, and then continue beating for another 3-4 minutes, until the mixture is just warm to the touch. Let cool completely.

In another bowl, beat together the mascarpone and crème fraîche until smooth. Beat in the cooled egg and sugar mixture, and then fold in the whipped cream and vanilla. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and transfer to the fridge to chill for 1-2 hours.

Select your pan. I normally use a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan, but you can use any dish of roughly similar proportions; another option is to make individual tiramisus using 3- or 4-inch ring molds (that’s what you see in the photo above). In a shallow bowl combine the cold espresso and rum or brandy to taste. In another small bowl, stir together the cocoa powder and powdered sugar. One at a time, dip the savoiardi into the espresso mixture, letting them soak up a bit of the liquid, then lay them in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. You’ll have to figure out the correct length of time to let your savoiardi soak – you want them to absorb some of the coffee but not become completely sodden. When the bottom of the pan is covered (you can break some savoiardi to fill the gaps), spread half the chilled cream mixture on top. Sift half of the cocoa powder on top. Repeat with another layer of savoiardi, cream and cocoa. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

Serve in slices or squares, accompanied by a spoonful of sweetened raspberries, if you like.