Tiramisu

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Hey, guys! It’s been a while! I stepped away from the blog for the month of May (you didn’t notice), but now I’m back! And, even though it’s not really warm enough here to be using the old “It’s been too hot here to turn on the oven, so here’s an awesome no-bake recipe” food blog trick, I’m doing it anyway! Let’s talk tiramisu, shall we?

Tiramisu, though an iconic Italian dessert here in the states, has only existed since the middle of the 20th century. (This gives you an idea of what Italians were doing with mid-century recipes, while we were over here putting hot dogs in Jell-O.) Roughly translated to “pick me up,” or “cheer me up,” it’s composed of savoiardi, or lady fingers, dipped in espresso, layered lasagna-style with a fluffy mixture composed mostly of eggs and mascarpone cheese, and finally dusted with cocoa. It’s sweet, and bitter, and creamy. Basically a dream.

Even though it’s hard to imagine a time before tiramisu, it wasn’t even introduced to the United States until the 1980s. The earliest record of a tiramisu recipe I could find in a newspaper was from 1981. Until quite recently, it was thought that tiramisu was created in the 1960s or 70s in the Veneto region of Italy in a restaurant called Le Beccherie, by the pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto. However, even this story is up for debate. Some stories say the recipe was instead created by Alba Campeol, who owned Le Beccherie along with her husband Ado. It’s said that she came up with the idea after her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, or an egg yolk custard made with wine, spiked with espresso to help give her energy after the birth of her children.

Perhaps the most convincing argument comes from famous chef Lidia Bastianich. Bastianich, while researching her book Lidia’s Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, may have discovered the origin one step before the Campeols. Restaurant owner Celeste Tonon told Bastianich that chef and restaurateur Speranza Garatti was the true creator of tiramisu. He said that Garatti served a variation of the dish in a goblet and called it coppa imperiale. Tonon also claims that it was not Alba Campeol, but Ado, who recreated the dish and renamed it tiramisu.

Aside from this wide-ranging fight in Veneto, there have also recently been claims made from the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. While arguments were going on a few years ago in Veneto about who created tiramisu, Friuli-Venezia Giulia drew a line in sand by declaring that the dessert was one of their traditional dishes. The rivalry was ignited when authors Clara and Gigi Padovani claimed they discovered recipes for the dish in Friuli that date back to the 1950s. 

It’s also worth pointing out that while this dish as a whole is relatively new, savoiardi (ladyfingers), an important component of this very simple dessert, have been around much longer. Savoiardi date back to the late 1400s in the newly-created Duchy of Savoy, a small area that lay on the French-Italian border. A dry, sweet, sponge biscuit, cut in the shape of a finger, they were created to honor a visit to the Duchy by the King of France!

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Tiramisu
A very slight adaptation of this recipe. Makes 6-9 servings.

Ingredients: 
28-30 Italian savoiardi (ladyfingers)
2 cups very strong coffee/espresso
3 tbsp creme de cacao or dark rum
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
8 oz mascarpone
1/3 cup cocoa powder, divided

Instructions: 

In a shallow bowl, mix together the espresso and creme de cacao or rum. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until the mixture becomes light yellow in color and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Beat together until the cream is light and about triple in size. Add in the mascarpone all at once and continue to beat until fully combined. Fold in the egg yolk mixture until fully combined.

Working quickly, briefly dunk the savoiardi, one at a time, into the espresso mixture, lining the bottom of an 8×8-inch pan. Once you have placed one layer of lady fingers, spread half of the egg mixture over the top, then dust with half of the cocoa. Place another layer of lady fingers, and repeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight. Serve chilled.

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This is not the first dish I’ve written about here that has a lively and contentious dispute about its origins. It certainly makes a big difference when a heavyweight like Lidia gets involved, but in truth, we aren’t closer to knowing who exactly soaked these dried cakes in espresso before covering them in cream. But I do know, we owe whoever it was a debt!

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The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!