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Various stories surround the origin of tiramisù, some of them off-color. Everyone agrees, however, that these ladyfingers, soaked in espresso and rum (hence the name, which means “pick-me-up”), layered in mascarpone and cream and dusted with cocoa, are as decadent as dessert can get. Ladyfingers—slender sponge cakes that are as long as a finger—are available in many bakeries. Savoiardi, the Italian version, are sold in specialty-food stores and by mail order. 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar 
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups freshly brewed espresso 
  • 1/4 cup dark rum 
  • 45 ladyfingers or savoiardi (see note above) 
  •   

For the filling:

  • 1/3 cup sugar 
  • 6 egg yolks 
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream 
  • 1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese 
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 
  •   
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting 

Directions:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the espresso and let cool to room temperature. Stir the rum into the cooled espresso mixture.

Pour the espresso mixture into a wide, shallow bowl. Working in batches, briefly immerse the ladyfingers in the liquid, then transfer them to a plate. Set aside.

To make the filling, select a heatproof bowl that fits snugly in the rim of a saucepan. Pour water to a depth of about 2 inches into the saucepan and bring to a very gentle simmer. Meanwhile, in the heatproof bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is pale yellow and creamy, about 2 minutes. Place the bowl over, but not touching, the simmering water in the pan. Using a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat the yolk mixture until very thick and tripled in volume, about 6 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat and set the yolk mixture aside to cool completely, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, using the mixer on medium-high speed, beat the cream until stiff peaks form.

Add the mascarpone and vanilla to the cooled yolk mixture. Beat with the mixer on medium speed just until smooth and well blended. Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold in the whipped cream just until combined.

To assemble, carefully transfer 15 soaked ladyfingers to a 9-inch square cake pan. Arrange them in a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Using the rubber spatula, evenly spread one-third of the filling over the ladyfingers. Place another layer of 15 ladyfingers over the filling in the pan and evenly spread with half of the remaining filling. Top with the remaining ladyfingers and filling, again spreading evenly. Gently tap the pan against the counter to settle the ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to overnight.

Run a small knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the sides. Using a fine-mesh sieve, dust the top with the cocoa powder. Cut into slices and serve directly from the pan. Serves 8.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian by Michele Scicolone (Oxmoor House, 2007).