‘I would like some coffee with this cheese’ is a sentence no one has ever said. Wine, goes without saying. Port, most certainly. Even beer and cocktails work with an appetising platter. Whilst an alcoholic presence isn’t necessarily a precursor for a beverage to compliment cheese, coffee just does not fit.
Unless of course we are talking about tiramisu (and in a similar vein, coffee flavoured cheesecake). Possibly the lone exception in the culinary world of the two brought together in a spoonful or seven of sweetened creamy glory (incidentally through my research I have discovered 'kaffeost' - a Finnish concoction in which hot coffee is poured over chunks of soft cheese - a more pungent affogato I suppose; I'd be willing to try it).
Translating to ‘pick-me-up’ from Italian and originating from Treviso near Venice, the dessert presents itself as layers of Savoiardi biscuits (also known as ladyfingers - the sponge biscuits used in trifles) soaked in cold espresso and an egg, sugar and mascarpone mixture. Often flavoured with cocoa and made suitably grown up with a splash of Marsala wine, it represents all that is great about Italian cooking; simplicity, the love of good coffee and the inclusion of cheese wherever possible.
Have a look online and you’ll come across many different recipes, a lot of which I’ve tried. They include the presence of cream, vanilla, strawberries and a whole manner of other things. The purist in me relishes the fact an Italian politician has recently asked the EU to grant the Treviso recipe invented in the 70’s protected status and rightly so; whilst I can appreciate new takes on classics, I’m old fashioned at heart and it can be too easy for traditional recipes to become diluted and lost over time.
The Italians are fierce in the protection of their national dishes, already succeeding with the Napoletana margherita and marinara, and I respect them all the more for it.
The cheesy mix in the Treviso recipe is comprised of egg yolks, sugar and mascarpone. How much of each I suppose is up to experimentation, but in my version I’ve also added some fluffed up egg whites. It creates a greater volume meaning the cheese goes further to make more portions. Because of this, the dessert is lighter and therefore I suppose, less of a burden on any guilt you may feel consuming it. Or so I tell myself.
In terms of liquor, feel free to replace the Marsala with rum or coffee liqueur. Traipsing through my local supermarkets, Marsala only seems to be available in standard wine bottle sizes. Should you discover the same, and unless you plan on making tiramisu every week for the foreseeable future or quaffing the stuff straight, substituting with something similar you already have is fine.
But have it made clear the unmistakable flavour from Sicilian Marsala will be absent and which I believe makes the dish. Savoiardi biscuits can be found in all supermarkets - they tend to sit alongside trifle type ingredients rather than in the biscuit aisle. Ask where the sponge fingers are if you can't locate them.
Makes 4 portions
Around 18 Savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers)
200ml strong espresso, cold
2 x egg whites
1 x egg yolk
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp Marsala wine
250g mascarpone cheese
A square or two of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
In a large bowl whisk the egg yolk, egg whites and sugar until thick and pale but still runny. An electric hand whisk will achieve this quickly.
Add the cheese and Marsala and beat until fully combined and smooth with no lumps. I find the beater attachment on an electric stand mixer does this well. The mixture will still be quite runny but this will set in the fridge.
Pour the cold coffee into a shallow wide dish. Soak a biscuit in the coffee for a couple of seconds each side so it gets absorbed, but remove before it goes soft and breaks apart. Layer the bottom of four individual serving glasses with one layer of soaked biscuits.
Tip For an extra boozy kick, add a splash of wine to the coffee too before you soak the biscuits
Tip If you need to break the biscuits to fit in the glass, do so before you soak them.
Tip Glass serving vessels are ideal as it allows you to see the layers but if you don’t have them, something ramekin sized will do just fine - I used glass tumblers.
Over these bottom layers pour 2-3 tablespoons of the cheese and egg mixture - you want to use half of your mix across all portions in this first layer. Top these with another layer of soaked biscuits, and finish with a final layer of the mixture, using it all up.
Using a sieve or tea strainer, dust cocoa powder over the tiramisu portions ensuring all of the white is covered. Finely grate the dark chocolate and sprinkle this on top to finish.
Cover each portion with clingfilm and leave to set in the fridge for at least a few hours before serving. I find they taste better the longer they are left as the flavours mingle, so I would make them the day before you wish to serve them.
An indulgent treat at any time of day, they do very well in the ‘hard to resist’ stakes.