Tiramisù: A slice of Italian Folklore

Traditional tiramisù is an Italian dessert similar to a parfait. It consists of Italian savoiardi or ladyfingers soaked in espresso and liquor and layered with a mascarpone and zabaglione cheese mixture. The final layer is often topped with cocoa powder, a bitter counterpoint to the sweetness of the ladyfingers and the lightness of the filling. The layered dessert is featured on Italian menus across the United States, though its history is difficult to pinpoint.

There are as many stories about the origin of tiramisù as there are recipes and variations. Some claim that tiramisù was first invented in the 1600s in Siena to honor the Grand Duke Cosimo III De Medici, known for his sweet tooth. Its distant relative, zuppa inglese or English trifle, is often cited as the precursor for the modern-day version. 

Like pasta puttanesca, tiramisù may have saucier origins. Legend has it that the combination of chocolate, liquor, and espresso was an aphrodisiac. Tiramisù literally translates to “pick me up” and was allegedly served to the clientele of ladies of the evening.

In actuality, this “classic” Italian dessert may not be a classic at all. Unlike many things in Italy, tiramisù might be a recent development despite the folklore. Several restaurants in the Veneto region lay claim to the delicious dessert, chief among them El Toulà and La Beccherie in Treviso. Both restaurants maintain that they created tiramisù in the 1970s. Whether tiramisù is 400 or 40 years old, it gained popularity in the United States in the 1990s and continues to be a mainstay of Italian cuisine.

Italians will tell you that tiramisù is an easy dessert to make, intended to be so easy that children can make it unsupervised. Like many Italian dishes, tiramisù showcases simple, quality ingredients but it is a labor of love to make a good tiramisù. In order to achieve the correct balance between the moist biscuits and decadent cheese layer, brush the espresso and liquor over the ladyfingers, rather than soak them. Another great tip is to make the dessert ahead of time and allow the flavors to marry overnight in the refrigerator. Regardless of the variation or the history, tiramisù will continue to be a beloved Italian standard.

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