I did not taste Tiramisù when I majored in Italian and went religiously to every Italian restaurant in our capital city of Belgrade; I did not ask about it when I spent a month in Italy, traveling from Rome to Abruzzo and then back to Rome with my friend Stefania, staying with her family and eating many meals in their hotel a few miles off the coast of the Adriatic;  and I certainly did not find it at the first fine dining restaurant whose doors opened to me when I embarked on the American soil, even though the owner/chef was an Italian by origin.

The first time I tasted this simple, but elegant Italian dessert was when my sister visited from Germany. My youngest daughter was only two months old, all round-faced, ginger-haired, and as demanding as if she were the first-born, and I was trying to find my zen while carrying her clasped to my breast, feeding her one-year-old sister secured firmly in her high chair, and helping my second-grader with her homework.

My sister waltzed in flaunting her sleek, European chic even while wearing black yoga pants and a tee shirt, no make-up, no pretense. I felt utterly exhausted on every level, but having some adult company and being able to converse in more than one-syllable words made me forget all about interrupted sleep, colic, and interminable hours spent putting my babies to sleep.

She was born efficient and organized, and the years she spent as a nurse in an ICU unit in Frankfurt, Germany, made her hone those traits to perfection. She commandeered the house with the authority of a seasoned ship’s captain and brought back the harmony that Shiva-like forces of my hectic life inevitably disrupted. It did not surprise me that my girls obeyed her every command uttered with a smile, but firmly, without objecting, whining, and dramatic scenes.

She took away lime-green sippy cup from my hand and replaced it with a glass of chilled French rosé. She set up a mini spa and did my nails that have not seen the salon in months, while I laid on the couch, a gloopy mask covering my face, two cucumber slices placed over my eyes. She colored my hair, picked my outfit, and kicked me out of the door so we could go shopping.

And then one afternoon she made a tiramisù which seduced me with creaminess, a subtle nudge of coffee and just a hint of alcohol. All I wanted was to inhale it, spend my days with it eating it very slowly, bite by tiny bite, making it last. But it did not last. It appears that even the smallest members of my household loved the adult flavors of this dessert and I had to share.

My sister has come and gone many times since then. Every time I feel like locking her in, keeping her in my home like a hostage, grabbing on to her black leather jacket and making her stay. But I just take her to the airport, stand in the crowd until she disappears in the winding TSA line and wave to her, not even bothering to hide my tears. I know she will be back. But I also know that I will miss her every single day.

We did not make tiramisù when she was here in September, back from her scuba-diving trip to Tahiti. I was grateful for that week she spent with me and the girls, happy to have her around, elated to see my house rejuvenated and spruced up once again. And I was grateful for the lazy afternoon hours we spent sipping chilled French rosé, reminiscing about our old boyfriends and listening to the 80s music, giggling like we used to back when sixteen months between us was a big deal.

But I made her tiramisù for my girls who were too small to remember its taste when she first made it. The three of us sat at the counter and ate our perfectly sliced cubes, making each bite last as long as it could before melting on our tongues, the coffee asserting itself over the softness of mascarpone, ladyfingers completely surrendered to the flowery touch of Cointreau. I miss my sister fiercely, but this was enough to bring her back here, bold, exciting, sweet, and soft at the same time, just like this Italian dessert she introduced to us so many years ago.

MY SISTER’S SIMPLE TIRAMISÙ

Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1 lb mascarpone cheese

The Rest of the Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of strong coffee at room temperature (espresso would be the best)
  • 3 Tbsp rum, amaretto, brandy, cognac, or Cointreau
  • a package of lady fingers (savoiardi) – I needed 30 pieces, but it all depends on the size of your dish
  • 1/3 cup cocoa for dusting (you can use chocolate shavings instead)

 Directions:

Mix the eggs and sugar with hand-held mixer or in your food processor until foamy and pale yellow. Add mascarpone cheese and mix until combined.

Stir together coffee and liqueur of your choice in a shallow bowl.

Place ladyfingers, one by one, in the coffee-booze mix, roll around for about 5 seconds and lay flat in a rectangular Pyrex dish. Continue laying the savoiardi until the bottom of the dish is covered. Place the half of the filling on top of them and spread evenly. Repeat with another layer. Spread the remaining filling on top and dust with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings.

Keep in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.