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.

35 thoughts on “Tiramisu and the Art of Birthday Happiness

  1. Ah, one of my most favorite desserts EVER!I do think I shall request this for my birthday, too (and then take the entire pan and lock myself in the closet with it and a big spoon!)Beautiful photo!

  2. I love your individual-portion sized tiramisu! I had this theory that you can judge a Italian restaurant by their tiramisu, so I pretty much ordered it every time I went to one:) Now I’ve taught K. to make a pretty decent one, so whenever I get a tiramisu craving, I just ask him.. I’ve never used creme fraiche though, but you’re right – it might just lighten the mascarpone. And regarding birthdays- I’m like Manuel. I’ve made my special birthday cake for years now – it’s easy to make, so leaves me plenty of time to celebrate and hang out with my guests. I guess it’s just that birthday is so predictable, so I go with the flow, and leave special & superexciting new dishes and restaurants for those special & untraditional occasions..PS Made osso buco last week for the first time, and really enjoyed it.

  3. I think I’m in the Manuel camp too–for me birthdays are all about comfort food and a relaxed time… (My boyfriend [of less than a year still], who is Japanese, doesn’t seem to really celebrate birthdays, period–sounds like he hasn’t celebrated his since he was a child–but I’ll probably insist on baking a cake come his birthday, anyway…it just wouldn’t feel right not to.)

  4. Manuel would be horrified by the deconstructed tiramisu I had last week at Falai in NYC. On one side of the oval plate was a pile of whipped cream with barely a hint of mascarpone and a whisper of marsala. Next to it was a pile of brown crumbs which appeared to be mocha cake that had been ground up and dried in an oven. The price? $10. The rest of the meal was fantastic (especially the tender octopus and the spinach gnudi). Just don’t order the tiramisu.

  5. wow Melissathis tiramisu looks heavenlyand i can so recognise myself in your way to celebrate birthdayslove- fannyps happy belated birthday to your lucky man

  6. Another Taurus…! Love, love love the styling of those individual Tiramisu. Simple yet so elegant. Thank you for making his favorite so we can all enjoy.

  7. dear melissa, manuel is one lucky man! what a heavenly looking tiramisu, made from a recipe polished and refined with your TLC over the years…i chuckled as i heard your groan ๐Ÿ˜‰ i’m constantly wanting to try new recipes (so many flagged-and-as-yet-untried-recipes, so few meals in a lifetime!) and special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries strike me as the perfect excuse to do so; while all w ever really wants is the familiar and comforting.

  8. Melissa, what a fantastic read! At first i thought it was your birthday. It sounds like Manuel had a great day.It was my birthday too recently and although my Fiance said he’d take care of things, the control freak that i am ended up cooking for my birthday โ€“ he took care of the bbq, mind you [it’s a man & fire thing for which i couldn’t possibly deprive him of]. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Oh, I’m so glad that Manuel stuck to his guns. Had he not, and had you made something else, I would not have learned how much better the mascarpone is with a little creme fraiche, or how much better it is to add the marsala to the eggs and cream than to the soaking liquid. It’s brilliant. So are you. :)The other night, as Lloyd and I were drifting off to sleep, we realized that it had been two years since our trip to Scotland, and we don’t want to wait another two years to come back. We’re thinking Spring 2008. Of course you know I’ll be in touch. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Well, I’ve had the exact same birthday cake almost every year of my life, so count me in the keep-it-familiar camp. I only recently discovered how good tiramisu is, and I’m so happy to have your recipe!

  11. Melissa – beautiful individual tiramisu! Today is my birthday, and I’ve decided to go with the familiar for the first time. My husband Rob and I are off to my favorite restaurant tonight, and I know just what I’ll order. Interestingly, this may be the calmest I’ve ever been on a birthday. No jitters about being disappointed at the end of the night and no moodswings…but it’s still early in NYC, and I can be a holy terror on birthdays…Happy birthday to Manuel and thanks for the wonderful post,Amanda

  12. hi melissa, that’s one lovely tiramisu. now, you shouldn’t be surprised if Manuel wants this every year. i bet it’s even better than store-bought one!

  13. Hello! I’m an avid reader of your blog and just wondering if I don’t have marsala what can I use instead? or can I just omit it altogether?

  14. Cheers to Manuel! To be honest, I find I fall into his category of celebration. I want the tried and true for my birthday. Your tiramisu is just gorgeous!

  15. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle: for my birthday, just keep it simple, so a fun dinner out with my wife and friends is perfect. For my wife’s birthday, however, I like to prepare something elaborate. Your tiramisu (or is that Manuel’s tiramisu?) looks beautiful. Though I don’t "balk" at your use of creme fraiche, I am very… intrigued. I will happily try it, however. When it comes to tiramisu, the only thing for which I am a stickler is marsala — I just can’t handle Kahlua- and rum-soaked versions.

  16. I love tiramisu, such a simple but sophisticated pudding, but also comforting and cozy. If that makes sense!

  17. Happy Birthday to Manuel, but I’m definately of your persuasion. I like to have my birthdays be a big deal, and that generally involves going out. Have you ever tried making your own ladyfingers? I hear Julia Child swore by them, and it might up the ante for you.

  18. I really enjoyed reading this post. Usually I tend to try out new stuff as often as possible, but sometimes I really do enjoy and appreciate the familiar.

  19. Bringing tiramisu from a simple familiar "family style" dessert to such a really pretty individual presentation is special. I wonder how hard it was to manage keeping the edges so clean…we’ve never attempted an individual serving although it’s one of my favorite desserts ~think I’ll give it a try this way for a more elegant version

  20. I have a story to share about tiramisu . . . Once upon a time, three years ago, my husband and I rented a villa in Umbria with my parents and brother and two dear friends of ours. Our friends stayed in the little detatched cottage and used the code word "tiramisu" whenever they’d want to indulge in a little, shall we say, intimacy. So we heard a LOT of "we’re going to go make tiramisu" followed by a little wink.My husband and I assumed that everyone else knew what they meant too, but I just found out recently that my mom had been quite peeved when I insisted on making the tiramisu (literally this time) for our grand celebratory dinner. Apparently, she had thought that our friends had spent all that time and put all that effort into becoming experts at making the dessert, and felt that I was stealing their thunder. So I’ll have to send mom, and our friends, your recipe — it looks fantastic!

  21. Hi everyone, thanks for your comments! I’m amazed at how many of you are sticklers for the tried-and-true on your birthdays…it makes me feel like even more of an anomaly! Luckily I have J, Fanny and Aoife to keep me company in the thrill-seekers club (and Amanda, depending on how her experiment went)…Bakerina – You better be! And we’ll be here, whenever you decide to show up. Though truth be told, I’d much rather find myself in NYC paying you a visit…!SimplePleasures – You can substitute water for the marsala. The flavor will be lacking, obviously, but the texture should be fine. Wendy – You think those are clean edges? I was almost embarrassed to post the picture, but then I figured I could always get away with calling the presentation ‘rustic-chic’! ;)Lia – That is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard! Did you finally enlighten your mother as to the true nature of their ‘tiramisu’ sessions?

  22. me encantaria conocer todas estas recetas, pero no se ingles un saluudo marisa

  23. Hi, I love tiramisu. I like so much put it on also flake of chocolate! For this season did you know a light version with greek yogourt in place of mascarpone?

  24. Hi Gloria – Sorry, I don’t, but I imagine you could substitute greek yogurt for the creme fraiche in this recipe. Still wouldn’t be that light though, I’m afraid… ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. I Love (capital L) tiramisu. Though, I too fall in the predictable birthday camp. GIve me a marble cake please! (my parents even arranged for a marble cake (from "the" local bakery) at our post-wedding reception party. One of a million little things that made me SOOO happy.

  26. Melissa – Like Pille above, I used to test the quality of an Italian restaurant by its tiramisu. I have never had one I really loved, and I have since learned that this test is rather silly, for most Italians eat tiramisu in the afternoon, not at the end of the evening. So, I now make it myself, each time following a different recipe. Yours has opened my eyes to something I do not think I have come across before: combining the liquor with the marscapone. This is a great idea, and it would actually give more definition to the espresso-laced savoiardi. Cheers. And happy belated birthday to Manuel.

  27. Hi Melissa,I’m afraid that I fall into the same boat with my boyfriend that you’re in with Manuel, but it exists with everything. Out of all three of my sisters, I’m the one that’s always cooked; I’m actually in culinary school right now! My dad jokes with me because my boyfriend will not eat what he deems to be "fancy" foods.. So he is hard to cook for sometimes, because, like you, I’m always in search of new foods and that perfect elusive meal. But you’re right.. Sometimes the familiar is better. Simple food really isn’t that bad.

  28. Hi Melissa,Where can I purchase cremovo? Is it available in liquor stores or do I have to go to a wine shop? (Sorry, I don’t drink alcohol. Though I will consume it when it is incorporated in food e.g. tiramisu)

  29. Angela – You don’t say where you are, but if you’re in the US you might try a specialty Italian deli or very well stocked wine shop. Unfortunately I haven’t found any in my neck of the woods yet, but I have found regular Marsala dolce (sweet Marsala), in my local liquor store. It’s not quite as good, but it does in a pinch.

  30. Hi Melissa-I’m in Seattle ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll check Borracchini’s. Not sure if you are familiar with them. It’s an Italian deli/bakery/store located on Rainier Ave.

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