Savoiardi, or ladyfingers in the U.S., provide the structural base for tiramisu. Ladyfingers outperform sponge and pound cake in all categories: They readily absorb espresso, stand up to the rich zabaglione filling without getting soggy and take minutes to prep. After a few hours in the refrigerator, the crisp ladyfingers absorb the moist filling until they have the consistency of a regular cake — there aren’t many reasons not to use them. But if you have an aversion to ladyfingers, you can substitute a basic pound cake.
Pound or Sponge
If you forgo ladyfingers, create a simple pound cake for the tiramisu base. Pound cake holds up better than sponge cake in tiramisu, even though they contain the same ingredients — 1 cup each butter, flour, sugar and eggs for an 11-by-3-by-7-inch tiramisu.
Beat room-temperature butter and sugar with a mixer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 4 whole eggs one at a time. Lastly, stir the flour in using a wooden spoon until just combined. Spoon the cake in an even layer in a jelly-roll pan lined with parchment paper and bake it in an oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Classic tiramisu filling contains zabaglione — a Marsala-flavored variant of sabayon — and pastry cream. Purists insist on making the zabaglione and pastry cream separately, and letting them sit overnight before folding them together. The reason behind the waiting period is more of an all-good-things-take-time romantic notion than an essential technique to improve flavor. Making them together — but in separate steps — saves hours of prep time.
Whisk 4 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in a mixing bowl until aerated, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of Marsala, and transfer and pour the mixture in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook the zabaglione over low heat until thickened, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently; set aside.
Mascarpone and pastry cream are responsible for the filling’s buttery texture and ample body. You want the mascarpone fluffy and ultra-creamy, which requires the standard creaming technique: Sugar mixed into butter. Mix 1 pound of mascarpone until smooth using medium-speed hand mixer. Add 3 tablespoons of sugar one at a time and mix until it gains about a third in volume, then slowly pour in the zabaglione. Next, whip 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream until fluffy and fold it into the mascarpone-zabaglione mixture. Set the filling in the refrigerator while you assemble the cake.
If you’re using ladyfingers, dip each in espresso for 3 seconds and line the bottom of the dish with them, breaking a few as needed to fit. If you’re using cake, cut it in pieces that fit the bottom of the dish and set it in; you need three layers. Spread 1/4 inch of filling on the first layer of cake or ladyfingers. Top the filling with another layer of ladyfingers or cake. Add another layer of filling and top it again. Top the last layer of cake or ladyfingers with the rest of the filling and sprinkle cocoa powder over it until coated.
References and ResourcesThe Washington Post: The Trail of Tiramisu
Ruhlman: Dough and Batter Ratios (The Chart!)
Delia Online: Zabaglione
Anna Maria's Open Kitchen: Annamaria’s Classic Tiramisu Cake Recipe
BBC: Tiramisu Cake