A Tale of a Terrible Tiramisu

Okay, so this is the final blast from the past piece. In 1998, after a little urging, I wrote a piece about my first experience making tiramisu, that sensuous Italian dessert. The experience was interesting, to say the least. I also was urged to submit the piece to the Washington Post Food section (which appears each Wednesday), which I did, and it was published. So, here it is.


 A Tale of a Terrible Tiramisu

[FINAL Edition]

The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.

You've told everyone about the tiramisu you had the other night, drooling on and on about its airy, creamy-cake texture and its hint of brandy so delicately intertwined with espresso that you swear you had died and gone to heaven.

When I made tiramisu for the first time, it wasn't exactly something to live for, let alone die for.

It was 1993, my first year out of college. Up until then, I had avoided any type of cooking. But Sara, a friend and now former colleague, loved all things Italian, most especially tiramisu. For Christmas that year, Sara gave me an Italian cookbook with an extensive tiramisu recipe.

I lived with my parents in Germantown, Md., at the time, and one evening while they were out, I decided to make this heaven in a loaf pan.

It took me almost two hours and visits to four grocery stores to gather all the ingredients--God forbid anyone in the suburbs should want to use mascarpone cheese.

In my mother's spacious kitchen, I carefully created the coffee mixture with espresso, sugar and brandy. I whisked the eggs with just the right wrist movement. I then lined the bottom of a loaf pan with ladyfingers dipped in the coffee mixture. I had trouble getting the ladyfingers to lay just right to form an even bed, but persisted. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.

"The ladyfingers should be soaked with the coffee and will expand a little," the recipe said. I saw this happening. "Continue with more ladyfingers, lining the bottom of the pan lengthwise with them. You can trim them if they don't fit exactly," it went on. I did have trouble laying them out evenly--ladyfingers just aren't created in a single size.

In fact, I began thinking it was odd to use ladyfingers in a dessert. In India, where I was born, we use ladyfingers for main courses and side dishes. But for desserts? It's just not done. But really, I thought, who am I to question the Italians?

Once the pan was filled with alternating layers of ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese and shaved chocolate, I wrapped the loaf pan with wax paper and put it in the refrigerator for six hours.

The next morning, I flipped over the loaf pan, as instructed. A blob of tiramisu settled onto the serving dish quite easily. I began to lose hope: This was the most unattrac-tive dessert I had ever seen.

I finished the loaf with an icing made of whipping cream, vanilla and confectioners' sugar, and dusted it with cocoa powder and additional shaved chocolate. I carried the serving dish with tiramisu to my parents and suggested they try it.

My father lifted his eyes from behind his glasses with a look of disbelief. "I'm not going to eat that," he said. I proceeded to lecture him about life and how one should always try new things. "It's Italian," I coaxed. "It's exotic," I pleaded. He didn't bite. "No," he said, going back to his newspaper. "It looks disgusting."

My mother, who embodies the encouragement of the world, looked at me with all the unconditional love she could muster. "Maybe later?" she said. "Fine," I huffed. I turned around and went back to the kitchen. I placed the tiramisu on the counter top and stared at it. It looked awful.

The next day at work, I began questioning people about tiramisu. "Have you ever eaten tiramisu?" I asked two colleagues in the break room. "Yes," gushed Linda."Incredible," drooled Mark.

I explained to them that I had made tiramisu over the weekend and it wasn't really edible to me or my family.

Neither could understand why. Linda went on to explain, "You know, sometimes I make tiramisu with real sponge cake."

"Sponge cake!" I blurted out. "That makes a lot more sense. Have you ever made it with whole okra?"

Linda and Mark looked at each other.

"Whole okra?" Linda asked.

"Yes. You know, ladyfingers--whole okra?"

Linda turned her head to me, looking confused. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Ladyfingers are whole okra," I said, obviously.

Linda turned to Mark again and turned back to me.

"No," Linda said, trying slowly to speak through her laughter. "Ladyfingers are sponge-cake cookies."

Word quickly spread through the office that I had made a dessert with whole okra.

"Didn't you think, 'Why on Earth is a vegetable being used in a dessert?' " Sara asked, breathless from laughing.

"No," I said defiantly. "The recipe called for ladyfingers and I used ladyfingers."

The pain, the anguish and the utter embarrassment. But how was I to know? Distraught, I spent that evening calling my Indian friends to confirm that, in fact, whole okra is commonly known in India as ladyfingers.

Even my grandmother, who doesn't know a word of English, knows what ladyfingers are. When I stayed with her in India several years ago, she would tell me in Hindi to buy a half-kilo of ladyfingers when the vegetable cart rolled around in the early afternoon.

Needless to say, I have not since then made anything without tasting it or seeing a picture of it first. This has not, however, stopped those who know about The Incident from asking me anytime I cook something: "Is there okra in it?"

Tiramisu (6 servings)

Here's the recipe I used to make my ill-fated tiramisu. Just remember to use the right ladyfingers. The recipe is from "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian" by Jeff Smith (Morrow, 1993).

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups espresso or triple-strength regular coffee at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup brandy

2 egg yolks+

1 pound mascarpone cheese

8-ounce package ladyfingers

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, shaved (use a box grater)

For the icing:

1 cup fresh whipping (heavy) cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

For the garnish:

Cocoa powder for dusting
Shaved chocolate

Stir the espresso, sugar and brandy together in a bowl until the sugar dissolves. Put 1/3 cup of the mixture in another bowl and set the remainder aside. Whisk the egg yolks into the 1/3 cup of coffee. Add the mascarpone and whisk together just until smooth. Do not overmix or it may begin to separate.

Line the inside of a 9 1/2-by-5 1/2- inch loaf pan with a large sheet of wax paper. Tuck the paper into the corners, being careful not to tear it. If you have another identical loaf pan, carefully press it inside the lined pan so that the wax paper will be forced into the shape of the pan.

Dip 7 ladyfingers one at a time into the reserved coffee mixture and begin to place them crosswise in the lined pan. The ladyfingers should be soaked with the coffee and will expand a little. This will only take a few seconds; be sure not to soak them so long that they fall apart. Continue with more ladyfingers, lining the bottom of the pan lengthwise with them. You can trim them if they don't fit exactly. Spread on half of the cheese mixture. Sprinkle with 2 ounces of the shaved chocolate.

Layer again in the same manner with 7 more ladyfingers, the remaining cheese mixture and the remaining chocolate. Top the loaf pan with the remaining soaked ladyfingers. Fold the wax paper up around the top of the pan, cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours.

Invert the chilled loaf pan onto a serving platter and tap the bottom of the pan to remove the loaf. Remove the wax paper.

Whip the cream, vanilla and confectioners' sugar in a bowl until stiff. Spread the whipped cream all over the inverted cake. (Or use a pastry bag to decorate it with whipped cream.) Place the cocoa in a fine strainer and dust the top of the cake. Sprinkle with additional shaved chocolate. Slice and serve.

+ NOTE: Uncooked eggs may be contaminated with salmonella and should be avoided by young children, the elderly and anyone with immune system deficiencies.

Per serving: 789 calories, 13 gm protein, 65 gm carbohydrates, 52 gm fat, 346 mg cholesterol, 28 gm saturated fat, 320 mg sodium

Credit: Special to The Washington Post

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.


  1. Sindhu I hate to laugh but that is pretty funny.

  2. What a fascinating, funny, and, needless to say, well-written essay. The world can be a cruel place.

  3. I tell this story all the time. Too funny

    Rob Marvin

  4. I echo Rob's comment! I think of that story often. I have consumed triple my weight in lady fingers while in India. I used to love them...