Tiramisù: a Nora Ephron pick-me-upJuly 2, 2012
When Nora Ephron died in 2012, my first thoughts turned to dessert.
A respected journalist, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, producer and director Ephron also loved good food and the Italian dessert tiramisù was a favourite. In her DVD commentary for 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle she says, “It hardly seems possible there was a time when all of America didn’t know what tiramisù was.”
There’s always much debate regarding tiramisù’s origins. Most roads lead to the Beccherie restaurant in Treviso, northeastern Italy. The restaurant’s pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto claims to have invented the dessert in 1970, naming it “Tiramesu”- or ‘pick-me-up’ – in the regional dialect. Sydney-based journalist David Dale has written that it may have been invented in Trieste in the 1950s with the recipe then taken to Treviso. I hate to admit I’ve scoured my mother’s old Triestine cuisine cookbooks and there’s no reference to it, just zuppa inglese (trifle). So much controversy.
Well, I think MY family invented it. In the early 1960s, we made our own Sydney inner-west version with Arnott’s Milk Coffee biscuits (the ones with the three rows of pinholes and the scalloped edges.) We called it “Torta Fredda” (Cold Cake). Not a sponge finger or Savoiardo in sight, just standard issue Oz biscuits that produced a more solid, tightly compacted cake than the tiramisù.
The building block of our 1960s-style tiramisù (left)
the real deal (right)
I loved helping my mother soak the biscuits alternately in coffee and Marsala, while my father made large vats of chocolate buttercream* to spread between the biscuit layers. He’d then thickly coat the cake with cream after filling the cracks with more cream as if repointing a brick wall. I think this cake may have been influenced by the squillion layered, artery blocking Hungarian Dobos torte, as Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for over 400 years.
I tasted nothing similar until the late 1970s when I ordered a tiramisù at one of Sydney’s best Italian restaurants – Darcy’s in Paddington, and a little later at The Mixing Pot in Glebe. From there, it featured on every Italian restaurant menu for about 30 years.
Back to Sleepless in Seattle, and I must quote from one of the film’s best scenes … Widower Tom Hanks is getting ready for his first date in 13 years when friend Rob Reiner explains things have changed and his date will probably pay for her own meal and if sex is likely, he’ll use a condom. But, most importantly, “There is now tiramisù.” Hanks has no idea what tiramisù is and Reiner replies, “You’ll find out.” Panicking, Hanks shouts, “You better tell me … some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is.”
*Ephron once said “you can never have too much butter”, so I feel much better.
The official Tiramisù site:
The Beccherie restaurant: