On Tiramisu, and Our Neurotic Food Culture

Added on by Caroline Zhang.
Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa
Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa

This is something of an existential piece. 

You might have noticed that it's been a while since I've posted regularly. There's the usual excuses (i.e. school, thesis research, my cookie sheet couldn't fit into the tiny summer dorm oven), but to be honest, I've had some doubts about continuing to food blog. I still love the baking, the photography, the wonderful bloggers I've met, and the excitement of sharing and finding new recipes. But then there's the massive social media pushes, the fact that these posts aren't really about the experience of creating food, the pressure to cook on trend, to create new or innovative or seasonal recipes, the strings of SEO-friendly buzzwords. And it makes me wonder what this blog is really contributing to.

A friend was talking about how much Food Network she watched: "If you gave me a set of ingredients, I could tell you exactly what a professional chef would do with them, even though I couldn't do any of it myself." We (and, I think, us millennials especially) spend so much time thinking and posting about food, yet so little actually preparing it and working with it ourselves.

Somewhere along the way, we seemed to have forgotten the that food is humble, cooking is approachable and, actually, terribly ordinary. To borrow a phrase from Michael Pollan, we seemed to have developed a sort of national eating disorder. We pick up our phones before our forks at restaurants, we spend hours in the living room worshiping celebrity chefs yet hardly set foot in the kitchen, we neurotically dash around an unfamiliar city looking for That One restaurant on Yelp with the five stars.

Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa
Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa

And I think we food bloggers have contributed to that look-don't touch mentality towards cooking as we work to make our food look immaculately delicious. We try so hard to create styled, edited, and Pinterest-ready photos, flooding social media feeds with beautiful posts that, intentionally or unintentionally, seem just  a little unachievably perfect (Well, some of us are much farther from "unachievably perfect" than others...)

Of course, I'm not accusing food bloggers of, well, actively promoting unrealistic standards of food beauty (though if you think about it, we are rather like the fashion magazines of food, staying a season ahead, publicizing the trends, carefully editing our shiny photos). But what we do is symptomatic of this generation's rather unhealthy relationship with food. Paradoxically, cooking and food are both over-hyped yet under-appreciated. They have somehow become a part of our social media identities, yet all this food culture has somehow made us forget the humble labor of providing nourishment itself. 

This isn't a sermon or a call to action, merely me just wondering out loud. I do plan on sticking around on this here blog (plus I just renewed my Squarespace payments, so...), but as I plan the next few posts, I am trying to focus on sharing what I genuinely feel like eating. It's a consideration that sometimes gets lost in the need to always be making something new, something with pumpkin spice (ick, fall is coming, you guys...), something to fill a gap in the recipe index, something that would look good on Instagram. I forget sometimes to enjoy my food.

Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa

To that end, I think tiramisu is a pretty good place to get started, not least because it translates to "pick me up" from Italian.  It's gone out of fashion a little bit since it was first introduced in the 60s, losing its novelty and becoming rather overdone. There's millions of recipes for tiramisu on the Internet, and mine isn't unique at all, but I wanted to share because I love it. Tiramisu is delicious and satisfying yet humble, in terms of presentation and assembly.

My first food blog post ever was about a tiramisu-flavored cheesecake. I didn't post the recipe (which included Cool Whip...) on my high school newspaper food blog, but a friend  on staff liked my terrible picture enough to ask for the recipe. She went on to make the tiramisu cheesecake, sending us photos, and posting her own takes on tiramisu.

That embarrassingly blurry and over-corrected photo is a reminder of what I love most about food blogging, of the ability to inspire others to get into the kitchen and start experimenting. We all love seeing the magazine-ready photos, speaking like food critics about mouthfeel and richness and paired flavorings, watching videos of professional chefs deftly handling delicate patisserie. But in the end, they all tell a simple story about people, a story about feeding others and creating enjoyment and nourishment through food.

So go pull out these ingredients from your pantry, and treat yourself to some tiramisu. I really do mean it.


Tiramisu | Pass the Cocoa

Classic Tiramisu

Click here for the printer-friendly recipe
Yields: 5-6 servings
Ladyfinger recipe adapted from Martha Stewart, tiramisu recipe adapted from The New York Times

For the Tiramisu24 savoiardi, or Italian ladyfingers (recipe below)
3 eggs, separated
¼ cup granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons Marsala
8 ounces mascarpone cheese (see notes)
1 cup espresso, cooled
1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for dusting

For the Savoiardi
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
½ cup granulated sugar, divided
¼ cup powdered suga

DirectionsMake the savoiardi. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper. Sift the flour, cornstarch, and salt over a piece of wax paper. 

Whisk together the egg yolks with ¼ cup of granulated sugar until the yolks become a very pale yellow and double in volume. Fold in the dry ingredients.

Add the egg whites and remaining ¼ cup of sugar to a mixing bowl and whisk until stiff peaks form. For best results, start whisking with the electric mixer set on low speed, and gradually increase speed.

Fold about ⅓ of the egg whites into the egg yolk/flour mixture to lighten. Fold in the remaining egg whites, until just combined. 
Spoon the batter into a piping back. Pipe fingers about ½ inch thick and 4 inches long. Sift powdered sugar over the cookies, and let sit for 1-2 minutes until the sugar dissolves, then sift again and let the sugar dissolve again. 

Bake the cookies for 25-30 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets halfway through, until golden brown and crispy. Let cool completely.

Make the tiramisu filling. Whisk the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons sugar until they have tripled in volume and become a very pale yellow. Add the Marsala; whisk for 3-5 minutes until pale/thick. Add mascarpone. 
In a clean bowl, mix together the egg whites and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until stiff peaks form.

Fold about ⅓ of the egg whites into the egg yolk/mascarpone mixture to lighten. Fold in the remaining egg whites, until just combined. 

Assemble the tiramisu. Pour the espresso in a shallow bowl. Quickly dip the ladyfingers in the espresso and line them along the bottom of a 9x5 inch loaf pan, or individual containers.

Spread about half of the mascarpone filling over the ladyfingers, and top with another layer of espresso-dipped ladyfingers. Spread the remaining filling on top. Refrigerate the tiramisu for at least an hour, or overnight. 

Dust with cocoa powder and serve.

This recipe does contain raw eggs. Consuming undercooked eggs carries the risk of food-born illness. While the risks of consuming raw eggs are usually minimal, do be careful in your preparation and to whom you are serving. 

Mascarpone is generally found with the specialty cheeses at the grocery store, rather than with the milk and cream cheese.