I can still remember the shock, years later.  Casually I had enquired what David – who was turning older in a few weeks -  would like as a special birthday meal. 

After some serious thinking, he’d said one word, which backed me into a corner.  Tiramisu. 

I had thought he’d suggest a fine steak, stuffed with oysters and followed by some lovely custard.  Or magnificent roast pork.  And ice cream.  But no.

Tiramisu, pronounced and prepared properly.   “Oh dear God,” I thought.  Isn’t that one of those hideously complicated things that take days to prepare?  Made by Italian peasants because they have nothing to do with their time other than make fantastic food?

Then I rallied – if Italian peasants can make it, so might I.  Then I remembered some Italian peasants I’d met.  Strictly speaking, they were Sardinians, but that’s close enough.  They were dropping in for lunch during their two-week visit to New Zealand.  Our friend Mariarno told us they wanted to visit a real Kiwi farm.  “No worries,” we thought, and got out an extra loaf of white bread from the freezer.  I hasten to point out this was a younger, more naive me.

They arrived en masse -  a little old Sardinian grandmother dressed all in black, a few of her daughters and their husbands, and a smattering of the next generation.  Black, as in designer black, purchased from the fanciest outlets in Roma.  High heels, slick hairstyles… maybe they weren’t peasants, I pondered, looking at my red-checked shirt, slacks, and woolly socks with despair.

As it turned out, they were wonderful guests, if somewhat stylish.  It helped they couldn’t speak any English.  Grandmother took stock of the situation and the kitchen and whipped up a pasta feast out of her own supplies.

I vowed – if they could do that, then I could make tiramisu or something that looked like it.  I consulted my Italian cookbook.  It told me originally Tiramisu was from Siena but no one really knows.   Some say it was invented by Italian wives around World War II, to give their men a pick-me-up before getting back to the fighting.  Still, others maintain that the Venetian Ladies of the Night used it to bolster their strength – whatever, it is possibly the best dessert in the world, of that there is no doubt.

Mind you, it took me four years to perfect.  At the time, I studied the recipe which told me it was just a matter of throwing together some eggs, coffee, leftover cake, and a few other things with mascarpone.  You then do something with a double boiler and whip up some zabaglione.  This was sounding complicated.

Luckily Clare, my daughter’s 10-year-old friend, came to the rescue.  “Tiramisu?  I made it the other day.  It’s a doddle.”

I gave it a try and decided she was right, after not too much effort I had what looked and tasted like Tiramisu, and honour was satisfied for the upcoming birthday.

Since then I have modified the recipe extensively – I’ve copied my friend Megan’s recipe.   Mine was good, no, it was lovely, but Megan’s is the best in the world. 

Being a clever clog, she fiddled with the recipe, and then went to her favourite Italian café and asked the chef how he did it.  And he told her!

The result is unbeatable.  And it’s way less fiddly than my method which had the ingredients going in separately.  It is, in fact, a piece of cake.

I shall make Tiramisu all the time now until people beg me to stop.

Best Ever Tiramisu

  • 8 large egg yolks
  • ½ cup caster sugar + 2 tbsp
  • 1½ cups dessert wine
  • 750g mascarpone
  • 500ml cream
  • 2 cups strong espresso coffee
  • 3 tbsp Kahlua
  • 2 packets of sponge finger biscuits
  • Cocoa
  • Zabaglione

Whisk the yolks and ½ cup caster sugar together until pale and thick.

Over simmering water in a double boiler slowly add ½ cup of dessert wine to the yolk/sugar mixture. Keep on stirring until it thickens like custard (this takes about 7 minutes). Set aside and whisk occasionally as it cools so it is thick and creamy.  A sink full of cold water is useful to dip the bowl in and stop the cooking.

Tiramisu Cream

Stir (do not beat) mascarpone until well blended and smooth.

Whip the cream until thick - just past the soft peak stage.

Fold together the mascarpone, whipped cream, and zabaglione one at a time (for example, add zabaglione to the mascarpone, and then add the cream to that mix).

Dipping Mixture

Mix together the coffee, 2 tbsp of caster sugar, 1 cup of dessert wine, and 3 tbsp of Kahlua. Make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.


Dip Savoiardi sponge finger biscuits into the cooled dipping mixture until they are moist but not sodden and line the bottom of a large lasagne dish with them. Layer half of the Tiramisu Cream over the top of the biscuits.

Repeat another layer of dipped biscuits and tiramisu cream. Bang the dish firmly to make the Tiramisu Cream settle into the gaps between the biscuits. Cover and chill overnight.

Just before serving dust liberally with cocoa.

© Annette Taylor