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When it’s done right, I love tiramisu. But when it’s not done right, it can be pretty disappointing – too sweet and too sloppy. So it goes without saying that I had mixed feeling when I saw that the February 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen and Deeba of Passionate About Baking. They chose Tiramisu as the challenge for the month.

Their challenge recipe is based on recipes from The Washington Post, Cordon Bleu at Home and Baking Obsession. As part of the challenge, Aparna and Deeba also required that we make our own mascarpone and lady fingers. It seemed like a lot of work for such an iffy outcome, and since I’ve been so exhausted lately I seriously considered not participating in the challenge. But some of my friends on twitter were encouraging, promising that despite the length of the recipe and the time involved, the dish wasn’t complicated to make and that it was some of the best tiramisu they’ve ever had.

I’m glad I took their advice – this was hands down one of my favorite daring bakers challenges to date. The tiramisu was surprisingly easy to make and it tasted fabulous! Not too sweet (though I did cut down on the sugar slightly) with the perfect balance of cream to cake. It also freezes really well, which is great because keeping it readily accessible in the fridge would be way too dangerous! Keeping it in the freezer allows me to thaw just the amount that I want – and makes it difficult to go back for a second slice! I would definitely make this recipe again – it would be the perfect ending to a dinner party.

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The one downside of this recipe is that is does take some advance planning if you’re making it completely from scratch. The cheese itself takes a day to make. Then you’ll want to make sure that the creams have time to chill before you assemble the cake (a half hour in the freezer was enough for mine). Once assembled, you’ll want to let the tiramisu rest for at lest a day to allow the flavors to meld together. I promise you though – it’s worth the wait!

This recipe is different from a lot of other tiramisu recipes in that it uses a zabaglione (an egg custard) and pastry cream in the filling. He flavors his with marsala wine, but I didn’t have any of that, so I used kahlua. I really liked the extra coffee flavor that this gave the final dish. You can use whatever you want though – and it doesn’t need to be alcohol. Extra coffee would be great, as would a fruit puree if you want something less traditional.

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This is a long one, so the recipes are after the jump.

Kahlua Tiramisu

For the zabaglione:
2 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar/50gms
1/4 cup/60ml Marsala wine (or port or coffee)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

For the vanilla pastry cream:

1/4 cup/55gms sugar
1 tablespoon/8gms all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup/175ml whole milk

For the whipped cream:
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

To assemble the tiramisu:

2 cups strong coffee, warmed
1 teaspoon rum
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese (see recipe below)
36 savoiardi/ ladyfinger biscuits (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

For the zabaglione:

Heat water in a double boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler, place a pot with about an inch of water in it on the stove. Place a heat-proof bowl in the pot making sure the bottom does not touch the water.

In a large mixing bowl (or stainless steel mixing bowl), mix together the egg yolks, sugar, the Kahlua, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Whisk together until the yolks are fully blended and the mixture looks smooth.

Transfer the mixture to the top of a double boiler or place your bowl over the pan/ pot with simmering water. Cook the egg mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 8 minutes or until it resembles thick custard. It may bubble a bit as it reaches that consistency.

Let cool to room temperature and transfer the zabaglione to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until thoroughly chilled.

For the pastry cream:

Mix together the sugar, flour, lemon zest and vanilla extract in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. To this add the egg yolk and half the milk. Whisk until smooth.

Now place the saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from curdling.

Add the remaining milk a little at a time, still stirring constantly. After about 12 minutes the mixture will be thick, free of lumps and beginning to bubble. (If you have a few lumps, don’t worry. You can push the cream through a fine-mesh strainer.)

Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until thoroughly chilled.

For the whipped cream:

Combine the cream, sugar and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric hand mixer or immersion blender until the mixture holds stiff peaks. Set aside.

To assemble the tiramisu:

Mix together the warm espresso, rum and sugar in a shallow dish, whisking to mix well. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, beat the mascarpone cheese with a spoon to break down the lumps and make it smooth. This will make it easier to fold. Add the prepared and chilled zabaglione and pastry cream, blending until just combined. Gently fold in the whipped cream. Set this cream mixture aside.

Working quickly, dip 12 of the ladyfingers in the sweetened espresso, about 1 second per side. They should be moist but not soggy. Immediately transfer each ladyfinger to a rectangular serving dish (about 6″x8″), placing them side by side in a single row. You may break a lady finger into two, if necessary, to ensure the base of your dish is completely covered.

Spoon one-third of the cream mixture on top of the ladyfingers, then use a rubber spatula or spreading knife to cover the top evenly, all the way to the edges.

Repeat to create 2 more layers, using 12 ladyfingers and the cream mixture for each layer. Clean any spilled cream mixture; cover carefully with plastic wrap and refrigerate the tiramisu overnight.

To serve, carefully remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle the tiramisu with cocoa powder. Cut into individual portions and serve.

Serves 8.

Mascarpone Cheese

2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Bring 1 inch of water to a boil in a wide skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the water is barely simmering. Pour the cream into a medium heat-resistant bowl, then place the bowl into the skillet. Heat the cream, stirring often, to 190 F. If you do not have a thermometer, wait until small bubbles keep trying to push up to the surface.

It will take about 15 minutes of delicate heating. Add the lemon juice and continue heating the mixture, stirring gently, until the cream curdles. Do not expect the same action as you see during ricotta cheese making. All that the whipping cream will do is become thicker, like a well-done crème anglaise. It will cover a back of your wooden spoon thickly. You will see just a few clear whey streaks when you stir. Remove the bowl from the water and let cool for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, line a sieve with four layers of dampened cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Transfer the mixture into the lined sieve. Do not squeeze the cheese in the cheesecloth or press on its surface (be patient, it will firm up after refrigeration time). Once cooled completely, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate (in the sieve) overnight or up to 24 hours.

Keep refrigerated and use within 3 to 4 days.

Ladyfingers/ Savoiardi Biscuits

3 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup cake flour, sifted
6 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, then lightly brush 2 baking sheets with oil or softened butter and line with parchment paper.

Beat the egg whites using a hand held electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Gradually add granulate sugar and continue beating until the egg whites become stiff again, glossy and smooth.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks lightly with a fork and fold them into the meringue, using a wooden spoon. Sift the flour over this mixture and fold gently until just mixed. It is important to fold very gently and not overdo the folding. Otherwise the batter would deflate and lose volume resulting in ladyfingers which are flat and not spongy.

Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip (or just snip the end off; you could also use a Ziploc bag) and fill with the batter. Pipe the batter into 5″ long and 3/4″ wide strips leaving about 1″ space in between the strips.

Sprinkle half the confectioner’s sugar over the ladyfingers and wait for 5 minutes. The sugar will pearl or look wet and glisten. Now sprinkle the remaining sugar. This helps to give the ladyfingers their characteristic crispness. Hold the parchment paper in place with your thumb and lift one side of the baking sheet and gently tap it on the work surface to remove excess sprinkled sugar.

Bake the ladyfingers for 10 minutes, then rotate the sheets and bake for another 5 minutes or so until the puff up, turn lightly golden brown and are still soft. Allow them to cool slightly on the sheets for about 5 minutes and then remove the ladyfingers from the baking sheet with a metal spatula while still hot, and cool on a rack.

Store them in an airtight container till required. They should keep for 2 to 3 weeks.