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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Watermelon Lime Granita

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August 3rd is National Watermelon Day. At least this one make sense, you know? Sometimes the national food days are completely off.

When it comes to melon, I’m partial to cantaloupe, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the sweet and juicy watermelon in the summer. “When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat,” as Mark Twain put it.

I looked into the history of the watermelon, which I knew nothing about. Watermelon, it turns out, has a long story.

Watermelon originated in Africa more than 5,000 years ago, possibly in the Kalahari Dessert. During these times, before the fruit was cultivated into the sweet treat we think of today, the watermelon was used predominately as a water source when traveling long distances, as the pulp is about 90% water. Researchers have found hieroglyphs on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and even remnants of watermelons buried alongside the mummies to keep them hydrated on their journey to the Underworld.

The use of the watermelon as a canteen of sorts may also have been responsible for its spread across the world. Watermelon was introduced to the New World in some measure by European colonists, but predominately by African slaves, as early as the 1600’s. The history of its cultivation in the States is intertwined with the ugly history of race, and it has served as a reminder of the injustice of slavery and as a sign of the independent success of former slaves after Emancipation. Unfortunately, as former slaves used the watermelon to assert their freedom, by growing and selling the fruit, the watermelon also became a racist symbol with a nasty connotation.

New immigrants to the States claimed it for their story too, growing watermelon as a treat unto itself on their small farms. Farmers in the Plains states, particularly Nebraska and Oklahoma–where it is the state vegetable (that’s a whole separate controversy)–a good watermelon crop became the symbol of prosperity.

Like so many foods that we eat in the United States today, if it had not been for the intercontinental voyages of the human race, just and unjust, willing and unwilling, out of curiosity, or need, or coercion, our diet in North America would be very different than it is today.

The watermelon recipe I made is much simpler than the millennia-old history of the watermelon: Granita! Granita was created in Sicily (where watermelon was brought during the Middle Ages by the Arabs.)

If you had asked me a few days ago if I had any interest at all in granita, not to mention if I even technically considered it a dessert, my answer would have been a resounding, “No.” To be honest, when starting this recipe, my main goal was to find a way to use up some of the 9,000 lb watermelon that we bought. My focus was on procuring the rind to make some watermelon rind preserves and pickles after being inspired by the watermelon episode of my favorite show A Chef’s Life. (Fun fact: The first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1776 contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.) But I wanted to make something easy and refreshing, and a big jug of watermelon rind pickles just wasn’t piquing my interest.

My second inspiration came in the form of a cocktail. One of my favorite bars/restaurants in the city, Little Bad Wolf, makes a delicious drink featuring a scoop of basil and Peychaud’s granita slowly melting in a tequila cocktail bath. So, to celebrate the humble watermelon, I thought I would make a watermelon granita and, instead of splashing it in a cocktail, just eat it all at once.

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Watermelon Lime Granita
Makes about 6 servings.

Ingredients:
4 rounded cups (seedless, or seeded) watermelon, cubed
Juice of one small lime (About 1 tbsp)
1/3-1/2 cup sugar (depending on how sweet your watermelon is)
1/2 cup heavy cream, optional

Instructions:

Combine watermelon, lime juice, and sugar in a food processor or blender. Blend until mostly liquefied. If there are still bits of pulp, that’s fine.

Pour into an 8 x 8 x 2-in pan. Refrigerate for about 2 hours, scraping the sides of the pan into the center of the mixture every half hour.

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and enjoy!

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A simple, no-cook recipe for the dog days of summer. Pro tip: I list the whipped cream as “optional” in the recipe, but it shouldn’t be. Don’t question it. I’ll admit I was skeptical, but something about the combination of crunchy ice and silky cream together is magical. Also, maybe you could scoop this granita into a tequila cocktail. It won’t be the worst decision you make this summer.