Tiramisu -- It Is Creamy, Soothing, Delicious And Called The Italian Comfort Food

ACTOR ROB REINER IS explaining to Tom Hanks about modern dating in the film "Sleepless in Seattle." There are certain words you just have to know, he is telling the recently widowed character played by Hanks. One of them is tiramisu.

"What's that?" responds Hanks.

"You'll love it," answers Reiner, leaving Hanks to ponder whether you actually consume it or if it's something you do on a date.

One could assume, since Hanks begins dating in earnest later in the film, that he eventually discovers tiramisu. But then, how could he miss? Virtually every Italian restaurant in the Seattle area features it, as do several non-Italian eateries. It may be Seattle's hottest dessert, just as it is elsewhere in the country.

So, what did Hanks sink his teeth into if he and his date ordered tiramisu? Basically, it's layers of ladyfingers or sponge cake soaked with espresso and sandwiched with fluffy clouds of eggs and mascarpone whipped together and flavored with marsala or often rum. Shaved chocolate or cocoa is sprinkled over the top and the effect has often been called "the Italian comfort food." It is creamy, soothing, delicious and, alas, laden with calories. A standard serving contains about 250 calories; fat is about 10 grams.

This seemingly dangerous dessert got its name from an Italian phrase meaning "pick me up." It comes from an old Italian morning ritual of going into a cafe and asking the waiter for a "tiramisu" or something to provide energy for the day ahead. In earlier days, it meant a thick, soupy drink made of eggs, sugar and marsala, some of the very ingredients that go into a tiramisu.

Tiramisu isn't quite the old, traditional Italian recipe that many cooks assume. In fact, it didn't really come into fashion (at least in its present form) until recent times. Anne and Brad O'Connor, inveterate Italian travelers who probably have the largest private collection of Italian cookbooks in the Seattle area, find no refererence to tiramisu published prior to the early 1980s. None of the popular books by Marcella Hazan, for example, make any mention of the Italian dessert.

Originally, tiramisu was called zupa del duca (the duke's soup) and was created in honor of a visit to Siena by the Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici III. The duke took the recipe back home to Florence, where it became popular with residents of the English colony there. Because of its association with the English living in Italy, it became known as zuppa Inglese. It still is known in some areas by that name, as well as Tuscan trifle, because of its close resemblance to the English trifle dessert.

Nearly every restaurant has its own variation of tiramisu, with the basic ingredients shifting according to taste. For example, some cooks substitute ricotta cheese or even cream cheese for the mascarpone (don't!). Ice cream has even been used in one version. For the flavoring, sometimes rum is used rather than the marsala. Other versions call for amaretto or frangelico or any coffee-flavored liqueur.

The big debate is how the ladyfingers are to be used. If they are too fresh, the dessert sometimes can become mushy. Many Italian cooks insist that dried ladyfingers are best because they do a better job of absorbing the liquid while still holding their shape. A brand of ladyfingers named Savoiardi, a dried version from Italy, is available on the Seattle market and works very well. Supermarkets such as QFC carry both fresh and frozen ladyfingers.

The first recipe featured here is from Lou and Pat Delaurenti, who share it with Delaurenti's customers at their Pike Place Market and Bellevue stores. They obtained the recipe from an exchange student from Milan who was staying with them several years ago and had her mother fax it to Seattle. They've been using it ever since and prefer to prepare it at home rather than order it in a restaurant. It isn't quite as elaborate as other recipes, but always works and brings raves.

The second recipe, from Erin Rosella (owner-chef of Sostanza), tends to be somewhat more creamy and is made in a sheet cake pan.

DELAURENTI'S TIRAMISU Makes 6 servings 1 cup sugar 6 eggs, separated 1 pound mascarpone (found in speciality stores) 2 7-ounce packages of dried ladyfingers (about 24) or biscuits 2 cups brewed espresso, lightly flavored with about 4 tablespoons marsala, amaretto or any favorite liqueur Unsweetened ground cocoa to dust Small piece of semisweet chocolate to shave

1. In a bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Gradually add the mascarpone and continue stirring until the mixture becomes creamy. In another bowl, whip the egg whites to a meringue consistency (stiff peaks). Carefully fold the meringue into the mascarpone mixture.

2. Quickly and lightly dip enough ladyfingers or biscuits into the brewed espresso to line the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch pan or glass serving dish. Cover the ladyfingers or biscuits with one half of the mascarpone mixture, followed by a thorough dusting of cocoa and shaving of chocolate. Repeat the layering process. (If you prefer a less moist dessert, you can divide the layers into thirds.)

3. Once assembled, shake the pan lightly to settle the ingredients. Chill at least two hours (overnight is preferable) before serving. Cut into portions and serve.

SOSTANZA'S TIRAMISU Makes 12 servings 17 ounces mascarpone 1 cup granulated sugar 2 egg yolks, divided 1 tablespoon vanilla 6 tablespoons Cognac or brandy 2 cups whipping cream 5 cups espresso 1 cup grated semisweet chocolate 2 packages champagne biscuits (about 40)

1. Cream mascarpone with the sugar, egg yolks, vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the Cognac.

2. In another bowl, whip the cream until stiff. Carefully fold in the mascarpone mixture. Keep cool.

3. When the espresso is cool, add the remaining 4 tablespoons of Cognac.

4. Using a 9-by-16-inch sheet pan (it should have one-inch edges), spread a quarter-inch layer of the mascarpone cream about five inches wide down the middle. (There will be space on either side of the pan.) Dip the biscuits lightly into the espresso and place in a row atop the mascarpone mixture the entire length of the pan. Using a spatula, spread a half-inch layer of the mascarpone cream over the biscuits. Sprinkle with a fourth of the grated chocolate. Repeat for two more layers, topping the final layer with the grated chocolate.

Note: Rosella faces the biscuits different directions with each layer because this makes the dessert firmer for slicing. She feels it is best if the tiramisu is made several hours to a day ahead of serving.

Tom Stockley is a freelance writer and Seattle Times wine columnist. Greg Gilbert is a Times photographer.