with the recipe for a Viennese tiramisu!
“What is tiramisu?”
“You’ll find out.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!”
“You’ll love it.”
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993)1
EATING high-calorie delicacies like tiramisu calls for some exercise. My daily walk through Vienna follows one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite routes, around the Ringstrasse and past Café Landtman. Now and then I pass through the Kunsthistorisches Museum, just as he would have. It was there that I had a major realization about the theme of breastfeeding in the Oedipus Complex and how it relates to the origins of tiramisu.
As a careful reader of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Freud explained the title character’s behavior through what was to become his psychoanalytic concept of the Oedipus Complex.2 Freud attended the phenomenally successful Oedipus plays staged in Vienna and Paris in the 1880s and 1890s. He would have visited the then newly-opened Kunsthistorisches Museum and returned there regularly to admire the Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek and Roman collections. My guess is that he would have been struck, at least unconsciously, by a particular painting by Orazio Gentileschi, father of the great Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
The painting, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, combines many Freudian themes and preoccupations expressed throughout Freud’s work up until his last publication, Moses and Monotheism. It presents the Oedipus complex as it plays out in a huis-clos depiction of a family nucleus, including both breastfeeding and the symbolic murder of a father. Looking at it a posteriori, with contemporary eyes, I had many realizations.
In the painting, the infant is feeding on breast milk. But when James Hillman and Charles Boer edited Sigmund Freud’s apocryphal long suppressed cookbook for the orally fixated, they didn’t choose milk or a milk-based recipe as an Oedipal dish; in typical Anglo-Saxon-style humor, they instead chose Mom’s Apple Pie.3 But as I’ll demonstrate, Freud himself would have chosen a tiramisu based on his beloved English custard.
If we consider that tiramisu could be an example of Oedipal food in the context of Gentileschi’s painting, which points towards exile and diaspora, thus England for Freud, tiramisu very fittingly could be translated as “get me out of here” — “here” being anti-Semitic Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis and the place of persecution of its founder.
Freud’s own Cookbook by Hillman and Boer is based on a simple yet irresistible theory that if one’s first meal was mother’s milk, then everything we eat thereafter must be charged with oral eroticism. We know Sigmund Freud loved English custard and Vanilla ice cream.4 He suggested that the deliciousness of such dishes was due to the fact that, as children, we were each “once a budding Oedipus in fantasy” — in other words, it reminds us of Mom’s milk, or, as we’ll see, of tiramisu. With its base of milk, eggs and vanilla, tiramisu would have found a devout eater in Sigmund Freud, and not only because of his love for Italy. But contemporary tiramisu did not yet exist.
Since chef and food writer David Rosengarten reported in his award-winning culinary newsletter5 that tiramisu originated in Treviso restaurant called Le Beccherie, much more has been written about the world’s most famous “pick-me-up” dessert. Others had written previously about the dessert, claiming that tiramisu was invented in sixteenth-century Tuscany during the visit of the Duke of Tuscany and later spread to Veneto, Treviso and Venice; it turns out this is not true. Nor was it invented by Catherine de’ Medici or Lorenzo de’ Medici, two of the most powerful and enthusiastic patrons of the Renaissance, either. (Lorenza de’ Medici, though not quite as famous, is a noted Italian cookbook author and TV-personality who also published a tiramisu recipe, just to make things a little more confusing.6)
Back in 2016, news about the true origin of tiramisu was traveling fast: Clara and Gigi Padovani had published their surprising discoveries about the history and curiosities surrounding Italy’s most beloved sweet.7 Since this conflicted with earlier stories, another round of quarrels between the country’s regions over the paternity (or maternity) of Tiramisu ensued. But the written proof the Padovanis produced officially shifted the trail of tiramisu from Treviso and Venice to the neighboring province to its east, Friuli-Venezia Giulia (literally Friuli-East Venice), around Trieste, Gorizia and up north towards Tolmezzo near the Austrian border.
On a few occasions throughout history, Venice has found itself under Austrian rule, but Italo Svevo and James Joyce’s Trieste, the fin-de-siècle literary hub on the Austrian Littoral, had been part of the Habsburg Empire from 1382 until the end of the Monarchy in 1918. This is why local cuisines are still strongly influenced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and why Vienna seems like it could be Italy’s northernmost city. Viennese, including Sigmund Freud, traditionally holiday in Italy, which explains why they are among the early adopters of tiramisu.8 Everybody was making tiramisu in Vienna in the 1980s.
For Austrians, eating tiramisu back home is a promise: “Pick me up and you’ll be in for a very special treat!” There’s even a cake called Malakoff Torte, which is something like a Viennese take on a Charlotte Russe, but is often described as an Austrian version of tiramisu, and is probably a close predecessor to today’s tiramisu.9
But the Padovanis’ book on tiramisu shows the grandeur of the dessert as a national pride and a united Italy as its ingredients come together from various regions: mascarpone from Lombardy, Marsala from Sicily, ladyfingers from Savoy, coffee from Triest, Zuppa Inglese from Emilia-Romagna, plus a dose of forbidden sex and slang from Treviso. This is an excellent example of food writing as politics, and how the politics of a nation can influence its oral pleasure! As we will see, it’s not so much the dish itself but the name that spurs certain fantasies.
To make this long story short, the first written and tangible proof of classic tiramisu dates back to the early 1950s, when chef Norma Pielli del Fabro created Dolce Tirami Su at the restaurant Albergo Roma in Tolmezzo up North towards Salzburg. She was, as she remembers, adapting a dessert “al cucchiaio,” which means that its flavor and texture were such that it should be eaten with a spoon. This dessert, called Dolce Torino, originated with Italy’s famous cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi.10 According to the Padovanis, there has even been some proto-tiramisu — without mascarpone — called Coppa Vetturino,11 dating back to the 1930s town of Pieris near Monfalcone (north-west of Triest).
More importantly, the people from Treviso claim to have always eaten something like tiramisu. Think of all those people and restaurants, like Roberto “Loli” Linguanotto at Alle Becchiere, Speranza Bon at Del Camin or food writer Claudia Roden’s favorite El Toula, all of which are famous for claiming to be the first to have served tiramisu. Jane Black’s well-known Washington Post article “The Trail of Tiramisu,”12 features Carminantonio Iannaccone, another entrepreneur from the Treviso region, claiming the invention of tiramisu. Iannaccone is originally from the southern town of Avellino in the Campania region (east of Naples) and later emigrated to Baltimore where he opened the Piedigriotta bakery.
Edda Servi Machlin, the author of three of my favorite cookbooks The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (vol I & II), and The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews, and others, claim to have always known and eaten tiramisu, and that there’s nothing new to it except maybe mascarpone. Machlin’s books mix memories and recipes from Pitigliano in Tuscany, towards the southern border to Lazio. She writes:
“Tirami su means, literally, pull me up. And in fact, this rich, delicious, yet delicate dessert was once used to give convalescent people new strength. I recall that many, many years ago (I was a child of seven),13 when my mother was recovering from an illness, our maid made tiramisu almost every day and that’s when I learned to love it.
In recent years tiramisu has made a triumphal comeback and has become a household name both in Italy and in this country [USofA], and a favorite at fine Italian restaurants.”14
Just like Iannaccone from Piedigrotta, Machlin uses crema pasticcera (custard filling) in The Classic Dolci and crema Inglese (English custard) in The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (vol. II). It is likely that, in the days before refrigeration, cooking the eggs this way made them safer to offer the sick and generally easier to store. Sigmund Freud’s much-loved English custard,15 or crema Inglese in Italy and vanillesauce in Vienna, remains a staple in Austrian cuisine.
Mothers always used to make a sbatutin, the local name for the Jewish guggle-muggle,16 egg yolks beaten with sugar, served with or without coffee, and with biscuits like ladyfingers but not mascarpone or heavy cream — my grandmother used to serve me egg yolks like that here in Vienna. Maybe adding some coffee or alcohol, mothers would say to their tired child or husband “Eat, so that this should pick you up,” or in the dialect from the Veneto region, “Magna un ovo sbattuto coi savogiardi, che te tira su!”17 It is the sweet treat of Italy’s and Jewish mothers, of love and of family. Israeli research has proven what we always knew: this remedy actually works.18
According to numerous rumors, stories and legends, if it’s not the mother serving tiramisu, it must be a prostitute serving this aphrodisiacal pick-me-up to clients in one of the many mythical brothels of the Treviso region. Treviso, especially its upper class, seems in the public imagination to be particularly sinful. There’s even a very popular movie, a 1965 sex comedy called The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Signore & Signori in Italian), set in the city of Treviso. It’s hard to tell which came first, the movie or the myth of a lascivious city.
Certainly, sexual allusions abound regarding tiramisu. “Lift-me-up” alludes to an erection, and some believe it’s a Kama Sutra sex position. Others think tiramisu, ティラミス in Japanese, is actually a secret matcha tea powder ceremony involving a geisha lady’s fingers. Around the globe, the dessert’s magical and astonishing name excites a playfully transgressive imaginary. Tiramisu is a particularly fertile screen for the projection of one’s fantasies. The Padovanis mention that in Italy the unconscious use of semiotic strategies regarding tiramisu is an object of study.19 But the innuendos are not always subtle: A 1980s Italian pop singer recorded a song called “Tirami su la Banana col Bacio,” which literally translates to “lift up my banana with a kiss.”20
Architect and art historian Manlio Brusatin explains Italian author Giovanni Comisso’s take on tiramisu’s birthplace. Comisso, who was from Treviso and was the editor of the works of Casanova, claimed that tiramisu was not only born in a brothel, but that it was of Austro-Hungarian descent:
“Giovanni Comisso has been, for those who write […] the literary interpreter and also the most informed witness on the tiramisu recipe […]. Giovanni Comisso’s grandmother, descendent of Count Edoardo Tiretta, Casanova’s friend and unbeatable enemy, immediately was a devotee of tiramisu […] as she always called this dessert that was her sole winter dinner (also her last). […] According to this, tiramisu was born in Treviso, then under Austrian domination, where the pleasure of coffee and chocolate was Venetian but raw materials came from Vienna only, capital of that territory which then as today is called Lombardo-Veneto.21
In turn-of-the-century Vienna, pastries and sweets were often associated with sex. As Stefan Zweig later wrote about pre-World-War I Vienna: “there was sperm in the air!” And there was, too, plenty of pastry to be eaten. It was a fertile ground for the tiramisus of this world.
Treviso-based writer Zenone Giuliato confirms that Italy’s most famous dessert would have indeed been served in the city’s brothels at the end of World War II, and this would have been a version yet without mascarpone. In a classic Italian and Freudian turn, Giuliato notes that, if tiramisu wasn’t invented in a brothel, it was for sure born in the kitchen of pious sister Dorotea.22
Who is this pious sister Dorothea? She must be the Virgo Lactans, the Nursing Madonna, the holy mother figure with the looks of a classic Italian painting (such as the aforementioned one by Orazio Gentileschi), feeding the needy and healing the sick with — you guessed it — tiramisu served out of a champagne coupe.
RECIPE: Viennese Tiramisu in a Champagne Coupe
Tiramisu is so easy, you don’t even need a recipe! But I’ll give you my Viennese tiramisu recipe to get you started. Ingredients proportions do actually vary a lot from recipe to recipe. Children even prepare it by themselves as a surprise in our house. You just have to be able to separate the egg yolk from the white and to stiffen the egg whites with a hand mixer or manually with a whisk, which is great for those who need to get rid of some extra energy. That’s about it. The children obviously leave out the alcohol and use decaffeinated coffee. I would never do that though! The hardest part is cleaning the kitchen after the children are through…
Venice and Vienna in a champagne coupe
This is the actual recipe I prefer. It’s very close to the classic Viennese recipe on the box of Vienna’s ladyfingers company Manner. But it’s also quite close to the one to be found in one of the best cookbooks on the Serenissima’s cuisine, Roussell Norman’s Polpo – A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) from the eponymous London restaurant.23
Using raw eggs
Get the very best fresh organic eggs from a reputable source and there should be no problem. The eggs will contribute taste and color. Everyone I know eats raw egg dishes like tiramisu, homemade mayonnaise, etc., and I have never heard of anyone getting sick. Do pay attention to hygiene, though. Wash your hands and disinfect all surfaces.
Pasteurizing raw eggs
If you insist on playing it safe, and if you want to feed the sick with tiramisu, you should probably opt for pasteurized eggs. They are available at professional suppliers. Or you can pasteurize the whole eggs in their shell yourself if you’ve got a sous-vide or another way to keep the eggs submerged in water at precisely 131°F/55°C for 2 hours.24
Do not leave out the eggs
Without the eggs, there’s no tiramisu (see article above). You will still have a delicious dessert, but it won’t be tiramisu. (Jamie Oliver has a version,25 and Israelis are fond of eggless tiramisus too.26)
Serves 12 champagne coupes (12×5.41fl.oz/160ml or 10×6.09fl.oz/180ml)
6 medium eggs (10.58oz/300g), separated
8.80oz/250g superfine sugar
1 vanilla bean (Freudian prerequisite, see article)
zest of 1 organic lemon (optional)
pinch of salt
500g mascarpone (preferably Schärdinger’s Mascarino)
14 shots of espresso (11.83fl.oz/350ml) at room temperature, decaf for children
4 tablespoons rum (preferably Austrian Inländer 80% alcohol)
40 ladyfingers (preferably Vienna’s Manner Biskotten)
4 tablespoons excellent cacao powder
4 tablespoons bitter chocolate shavings
2 tablespoon coffee beans cracked
lemon rind curls from 1 organic lemon
- Grate the vanilla bean and zest the lemon into the sugar. Stir well. Set aside.
- Separate the eggs and reserve the egg yolks in a large bowl.
- In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with pinch of salt until they are stiff.
- Add half the sugar-vanilla-lemon-zest mixture to the yolks and whisk for a couple of minutes until the mixture turns pale and into an airy cream.
- Stir the mascarpone well and slowly incorporate it by hand into the yolk and sugar mixture.
- Delicately fold the stiff egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
- In a shallow bowl, combine the espresso with the rum.
- Soak two ladyfinger halves at a time in the espresso-rum mixture while turning them and counting approximately four seconds. Immediately place them into the bottom of a champagne coupe. Repeat with the remaining glasses.
- Distribute the egg-mascarpone mixture on top of the two ladyfinger halves into the champagne coupes, filling them almost to the top. Decorate along the side wall with six more ladyfinger halves soaked in the coffee-rum mixture, forming the petals of a flower — or the teeth of a mouth if you prefer.
- Dust the top of the tiramisu with high-quality cacao powder.
- Refrigerate overnight or at least for a couple of hours so that they have time to set and turn into the legendary dessert.
- Right before serving, decorate with bitter chocolate shavings, your favorite cracked coffee beans and some pretty lemon rind curls.
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- Sleepless in Seattle is an adaptation of Leo McCarey’s far superior movie An Affair to Remember (Our Love Affair) starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1989 / New Translation by Joyce Crick; Oxford University Press, 2008). In his study on Hamlet and Oedipus, his colleague and biographer Ernest Jones takes up these comments and investigates Hamlet with Freudian psychoanalysis.
- James Hillman & Charles Boer (Editors), Freud’s own cookbook (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1987), p.76.
- Katja Behling-Fischer in Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten [At the table with Sigmund Freud: Lifestyle, Hospitality and Eating Habits of the Founder of Psychoanalysis. With many recipes.] (Vienna: Brandstätter, 2000).
- The Rosengarten Report written and published by David Rosengarten from 2001 to 2007. David Rosengarten is a chef, author, food network TV personality, contributing editor for Gourmet Magazine… David Rosengarten on Wikipedia.
- See Lorenza de’Medici’s recipe: https://www.bigoven.com/recipe/lorenza-di-medicis-basic-tiramisu/107288.
- Clara Padovani, Gigi Padovani, Tiramisù. Storia, curiosità, interpretazioni del dolce italiano più amato (Florence: Giunti Editore, 2016). Their book is accompanied by a Website presenting videos featuring most of the people, cooks and chefs mentioned in their research: http://mytiramisu.it/video.
- The recipe for a tiramisu appears in a famous canon of Austrian cuisine, Ewald Plachutta and Christoph Wagner’s Die gute Küche. Das Österreichische Jahrhundert Kochbuch. [The Good Cuisine. The Austrian Cookbook of the Century]. (Vienna: Orac, 1993).
- The Austrian broadcasting service ORF aired a show on this subject on Mai 4, 2013 under the title Das Österreichische Tiramisu (Austria’s Tiramisu).
- It’s recipe number 649 by Pellegrino Artusi in his La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well) from 1891.
- Later on, from 1946 onwards it was called “Tirime su”.
- Jane Black “The Trail of Tiramisu” in: Washington Post, June 11, 2007.
- This must have been in 1935 as Edda Servi Machlin was born on February 22, 1926.
- Edda Servi Machlin The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (vol II) (Croton-on-Hudson: Giro Press, 1992), p. 244.
- So we are told by Katja Behling-Fischer in Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten [At the table with Sigmund Freud: Lifestyle, Hospitality and Eating Habits of the Founder of Psychoanalysis. With many recipes.](Vienna: Brandstätter, 2000).
- kogel-mogel, gogl-mogl, gogel-mogel, gogol-mogol (Russian: Гоголь-моголь), gogli-mogli, or gogle-mogle (Yiddish: גאָגל-מאָגל) is also an egg-based dessert well known in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Caucasus. Often other ingredients like chocolate, vodka, rum, honey, vanilla, lemon juice, orange juice, raisins and even whipped cream are added. Cf.<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogel_mogel> (retrieved March 20, 2018.
In the category of folk medicine falls the “guggle-muggle,” a milk and alcohol based drink, or the “Jewish echinacea.” Adored by such contemporary Jewish heavyweights as Barbra Streisand and Ed Koch, this beverage is consumed by the larger Eastern European world, but is most distinctly associated with Yiddish culture.
Elizabeth Alpern, “Cures for the Common Cold from Maimonides to the Shtetl” (Jewish Daily Forward; November 9, 2010) <https://forward.com/food/132987/cures-for-the-common-cold-from-maimonides-to-the-s/> (retrieved March 20, 2018)
- Clara Padovani, Gigi Padovani, Tiramisù. Storia, curiosità, interpretazioni del dolce italiano più amato (Florence: Giunti Editore, 2016), p.29.
- Cf.<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogel_mogel> (retrieved March 20, 2018).
- Clara Padovani, Gigi Padovani, Tiramisù. Storia, curiosità, interpretazioni del dolce italiano più amato (Florence: Giunti Editore, 2016), p.50-51.
- Gianni Drudi – “Tirami su la Banana col Bacio”
- Professor Manlio Brusatin in “Venice International Foundation”, 2005. Quoted in Clara Padovani, Gigi Padovani, Tiramisù. Storia, curiosità, interpretazioni del dolce italiano più amato (Florence: Giunti Editore, 2016), p.25. And in Tiramisu, una storia di famiglia trevigiana: dai Tiretta ai Salsa, fino a Giovanni Comisso (Treviso Today, July 23, 2017).
- Clara Padovani, Gigi Padovani, Tiramisù. Storia, curiosità, interpretazioni del dolce italiano più amato (Florence: Giunti Editore, 2016), p.24.
- Roussell Norman in Polpo – A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p.254.
- Cf. Nathan Myhrvold, Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (London: Phaidon, 2011).
- Jamie Oliver, Jamie’s Italy (London: Michael Joseph, 2005).
- Vered Guttman, Israeli Tiramisu: Try It Once, You’ll Never Look Back
(Haaretz, May 09, 2013).