Despite its enormous popularity, in Italy and around the world, Tiramisù must be considered one of the most recent “traditional” Italian sweets. Its birth date is very recent but then, its main ingredients are relatively young, too, according to the standards of other Italian traditions.
The savoiardi, for example, also known as ladyfingers in English and in French as biscuits à la cuillère, were probably born “just” in the 16th century (see Francesco Elmi’s Recipe below). Their name comes from Savoy, a Duchy on the border of Italy and France, which included lands belonging to both of today’s states. The Savoy Dynasty eventually produced the first kings of the unified Italy in the 19th century. Also known as sponge-fingers, trifle sponges or boudoir biscuits, savoiardi according to tradition were invented to celebrate the visit of a French King to the Duchy of Savoy.
Even more recent is the history of the Sicilian Marsala wine; at least in the way it is made today. It was an English wine merchant, John Woodhouse, who, in 1773, “created” it, by fortifying a very old Sicilian wine, known by the name of the town in the Province of Trapani since the times of the ancient Romans, and shipping it to the UK, his homeland. It was another Englishman, Benjamin Ingham, who further improved the quality of Marsala, and then finally, in 1833, with Vincenzo Florio, Italians too begun to produce this fantastic wine, which after some decades of decadence, in the past century, has now recovered levels of excellent quality.
The origins of Mascarpone cheese date back to the 17th century, again according to tradition, but there are no documents to confirm it. Mascarpone is a triple cream cheese made from fresh cream to which some tartaric acid is added; after this step, which is called denaturation, the whey is removed without pressure or aging. Still controversial are the origins of the name of Mascarpone, which was born in a rural area close to Milan, on the Po Plain, between Lodi and Abbiategrasso. It could come from Mascarpa, the name of a product made with the whey of stracchino or from Mascarpia, ricotta in the local dialect. Yet others claim that the real name of this cheese is Mascherpone, because it was produced on the Mascherpa family farm (cascina Mascherpa) between Milan and Pavia that no longer exists today.
In any case, the key to a good tiramisù is all in these ingredients and their quality. Many pastry chefs or home cooks fail when, for example, they prepare it by using a poor quality mascarpone or some replacement such as ricotta. The correct Mascarpone is critical. While Mascarpone is relatively easy to make, producers around the world still do not have the know-how or the machinery of Italian manufacturers.