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A&E >  Food

Tiramisu: A real pick-me-up

Tiramisu means “pick me up” – or, even cuter, “cheer me up.”

The name references its infusion of espresso, of course, but after a serving of this decadent Italian dessert done right, whose mood wouldn’t be uplifted?

Rich and creamy and often a bit boozy, tiramisu has become a modern classic with all sorts of variations. Perhaps the best part: It’s a lot easier to prepare than it looks.

Making tiramisu from scratch is more about combining than cooking. In fact, no real cooking is required, unless you bake your own ladyfingers.

Frank Comito makes that look easy, too. But the corporate executive chef with the Nelson and Phelps Hospitality group in Spokane, prefers to use torta de tres leches without the leches when he makes tiramisu, the popular coffee- and chocolate-flavored Italian confection that features layers of mascarpone and pastry.

Tres leches cake is typically soaked in three kinds of milk. So it has the structure to stand up to a good dousing of coffee or liqueur or coffee and liqueur or coffee liqueur.

“It has more flavor, too,” Comito said.

Tiramisu is one of his specialties. The way he makes it – with either tres leches cake or ladyfingers – the pastry becomes saturated. Both are sponge cakes. Soaking up espresso, spirits, simple syrup – or milk – is what they’re meant to do.

Who cares if the pastry’s a bit soggy? “We don’t,” Comito said. “The flavors marry better.”

He’s used cognac and brandy – both of which he found “too harsh” – as well as Kahlua, which he preferred until he discovered Grind Espresso Shot, a Caribbean rum blended with medium-roasted Arabica coffee beans. That’s what he uses now to soak the cake or ladyfingers – along with a little coffee, too.

Marsala is traditional. But some recipes call for Tia Maria, Irish cream, Madeira, rum or port.

“Everybody freestyles,” Comito said.

His ancestors come from Calabria in the toe of the boot that is Italy. But, he’s never been.

“My wife wants to go for our 35th anniversary, which is two years from now.”

Disputed origins

Tiramisu is relatively new. But in the 50 or 60 years since it was created, it’s become the quintessential Italian dessert.

Type tiramisu into Google, and you get some 10.8 million results. By comparison, biscotti brings in 7.9 million hits. Panna cotta garners about 5.4 million. And cannoli and pannettone get about the same number: 4.3 million and 4.1 million, respectively.

Today, there’s no shortage of tiramisu-inspired cakes, crepes, cookies, eclairs, lattes, frosting, mousse and more. Martha Stewart makes tiramisu sundaes and ice cream cake. There are also all kinds of variations – pumpkin, passion fruit, berry, orange, sweet tea, matcha, chai, yogurt, vegan coconut cream. Of course, that wasn’t always the case.

In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Dorie Greenspan credits the 1993 rom-com “Sleepless in Seattle” for igniting a tiramisu craze and turning the dessert into an almost-overnight sensation.

“We can thank the late, beloved screenwriter Nora Ephron for single-handedly reviving this dessert,” she wrote, also noting tiramisu just “might be the best name ever for a date-night dessert.”

Pick me up. Get it?

While the film helped make tiramisu trendy more than 20 years ago, Comito doesn’t believe the dessert has lost its luster.

“I still think it has that wow factor,” he said. “I like how it strikes a balance between the bitter cocoa and the coffee because of the richness of the mousse.”

So does Baltimore baker Carminantonio Iannaccone, who claims to have invented Tiramisu in 1969 when he was 23.

The dessert’s origins are disputed, but tiramisu is widely believed to have been invented in northern Italy during the 60s. Many attribute the creation to Le Beccherie, a restaurant in Treviso, about 25 miles north of Venice. However, Iannaccone claims the tiramisu sold at Le Beccherie was made by him.

“Though he has no invoices to prove it, he claims that his late brother, Giuseppe, sold tiramisu to Le Beccherie, whose owners passed it off as their own,” Jane Black wrote in a 2007 story for the Washington Post.

Comito, 57, hasn’t met Iannaccone, but finds his story believable.“It makes sense that it would be a 23-year-old,” Comito said. “Pastry is pretty by-the-book, especially in Italy. I would think it would be a younger person putting together layers of flavor in a different way.”

Iannaccone used Marsala to balance the creaminess of the mascarpone and sharpness of the coffee.

“He says it took him two years to perfect the recipe, which was originally served as an elegant, freestanding cake,” Black wrote.

An all-time favorite

Today, it’s common to assemble the confection in a trifle bowl or other glass dish to show off the layers. Comito likes to make his parfait-style in single-serving glass cups.

His recipe dates to 1997. Comito created his version when he was working in a restaurant on the Oregon Coast.

“It’s one of my wife’s all-time favorites,” he said.

They moved to Spokane in 1999 for his job as executive chef of the former Spokane Country Club, where he made his tiramisu “a lot” for dessert buffets. He worked there for 16 years before joining Nelson and Phelps in April.

Comito has tiramisu on the menu at the group’s north Spokane seafood and steakhouse, The Barrel. Last weekend it sold out.

If he makes his tres leches cake without the milk, he cuts it up – “into croutons, almost,” he said – to focus on his favorite part: the mascarpone filling.

“It’s like a soft, caramelly cream cheese – only 10 times better. I love it,” Comito said. “I always will.”

He isn’t a huge fan of ladyfingers, the elongated, light and sweet biscuits which date to the late 15th century and are traditionally used in tiramisu. On their own, Comito finds them to be “just dry and dead” – even the crunchy ones he makes.

“It’s all about what’s soaked into them,” he said. “They soak up whatever you pair them with.”

Some bakers use shortbread cookies or sweet yeast bread, such as pannettone, instead.

Comito assembles the dish with a layer of mascarpone filling first, followed by a dusting of cocoa powder, sprinkling of chocolate curls and a couple of coffee- and spirit-soaked ladyfingers, broken in half. There’s room to repeat the process one more time before bringing the dish to the table.

Tiramisu is best served cold.

But it’s more of a reward than some sort of revenge – unless, of course, you overindulge.

And, “Honestly,” Comito said, “I could eat this until I got sick.”


From Frank Comito of Nelson and Phelps Hospitality in Spokane

8 egg yolks (room temperature)

¾ cup sugar

Pinch salt

1 pound mascarpone

8 egg whites (room temperature)

Pinch cream of tartar

1 recipe Ladyfingers (see recipe below)

1 cup coffee liqueur or cold coffee or a mix of both (Comito prefers Grind Espresso Shot)

Chocolate curls, to taste (Comito likes Ghirardelli) (See instructions below)

Cocoa powder, to taste

Beat yolks in bowl of stand mixer, 2-3 minutes. Add sugar and salt, and beat 2-3 minutes, until pale yellow and thick. Add mascarpone, mix until smooth, then chill.

In the bowl of the stand mixer, beat whites with cream of tartar. Gently fold egg whites into mascarpone mixture.

Soak Ladyfingers with coffee liqueur, coffee or mixture of both.

Place a layer of the mascarpone mousse in the bottom of your serving dish, such as a trifle bowl, baking dish or individual parfait cups. Dust with cocoa and chocolate curls. Add a couple of pieces of soaked ladyfingers that have been broken in half. Repeat until serving dish is filled.

Note: This recipe contains raw or undercooked eggs. The Food and Drug Administration advises that eating raw or undercooked eggs may increase your risk of food-borne illness.


From Frank Comito of Nelson and Phelps Hospitality in Spokane

“This recipe has little more flour than a typical sponge cake,” said Comito, who uses bread flour to give the biscuits more structure. The cornstarch helps keep them light.

1 1/2 ounces cornstarch

2 ounces bread flour

3 egg yolks (room temperature)

1 ounce sugar

3 egg whites (room temperature)

Pinch cream of tartar

2 ounces sugar

Sift together cornstarch and flour, and set aside.

Beat yolks and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until pale yellow and thick, and set aside.

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks. Then, gradually beat in sugar until stiff peaks form.

Gently fold egg-white mixture into the egg-yolk mixture. Then, gently fold in the cornstarch mixture.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. With the plain tip on a pastry bag, pipe out 2-inch-long lines of batter.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 8-10 minutes, until golden brown. Cool completely before using or serving.

Chocolate Curls


8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon vegetable shortening

Set a heatproof bowl, or the top of a double boiler, over a pan of barely simmering water. Melt chocolate and shortening in bowl, stirring occasionally.

Divide chocolate between two 11-by-17-inch baking pans; spread evenly with an offset spatula. Chill until your finger makes a mark, but not a hole, when touching chocolate.

Remove pans from refrigerator. Hold a sturdy metal pancake spatula at a 45-degree angle to pan; scrape away from you, forming curls. If chocolate is too brittle, quickly wave pan over top of warm stove. If too soft, briefly return to refrigerator. Refrigerate in an airtight container up to two weeks.

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