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Ladyfingers: One Of Italy’s Most Treasured Desserts

Instant chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Store-bought savoiardi, ladyfingers, are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this "instant" chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Savoiardi cookies — often called ladyfingers in the United States — were created in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1348 during the early Renaissance for the royal Savoia family, which gives the cookie its name. Savoiardi recipes are cited in several historic Italian cookbooks, including Bartolomeo Stefani’s 1662 book “The Art of Good Cooking.” This cookie is so important to Italians that the recipe is regulated and the name protected.

For me — probably you, too, since you’re reading this — Italy’s food traditions are precious. Certain products and recipes are so definitively Italian that their origins and even names are worth protecting and preserving. When it comes to Italy’s sweets, there is a national organization, the Association of Italian Sweets and Pasta Manufacturers (Associazione delle Industrie del Dolce e della Pasta Italiane), whose job it is to do just that. The group, founded in 1967, set forth regulations that cover the processes and ingredients permitted for various types of sweets. Their standards, it turns out, are some of the world’s strictest.

For example, to qualify as authentic, savoiardi, the famous Italian cookie, must follow a definitive checklist in accordance with its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status. Ingredients must be region-specific and only the best butter — and a guaranteed amount of it — may be used. There are required quantities of eggs and acceptable flours. The demands are almost painfully rigorous, but the results are exquisite!

Traditionally, savoiardi are dipped in hot chocolate or coffee. Because Italian-made savoiardi soak up liquid so nicely, they are a key ingredient in hundreds of desserts, including charlottes and puddings and, of course, tiramisu.

“Instant” Chocolate Cake

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

A no-bake dessert that’s a snap to make and quite pretty. Store-bought savoiardi are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm. It slices just like pound cake.

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 ounces, 7 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or higher

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

1/4 cup sweet liqueur, such as Alchermes or rum

12 savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers

2 tablespoons crushed pistachios or hazelnuts

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the butter, confectioners’ sugar and egg yolk until very smooth and creamy.

2. In another bowl, melt the chocolate and cream, in the microwave or over a double boiler. Stir the chocolate and vanilla into the butter mixture. Reserve.

3. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and granulated sugar in a shallow bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur and add more sugar, if you like.

4. Dip four savoiardi, one at a time, into the liquid. Arrange the four liqueur-dipped savoiardi in a row, close together, on a serving plate. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture.

5. Repeat, dip four more savoiardi into the liquid, place them on top of the first row. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture. Repeat for the third and final layer, spreading the remaining chocolate on top and along the sides of the stacked savoiardi. Sprinkle the top layer with pistachios or hazelnuts. Refrigerate an hour or until firm. Serve cold.

updated tiramisu

This tiramisu is a perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Updated Tiramisu

Tiramisu is traditionally made with raw eggs. Not only is this tiramisu just as delicious as the traditional version, but here, because the eggs are whipped with hot sugar syrup, there’s no raw eggs to worry about. It also makes the custard stay light and fluffy for up to two days in the fridge.

A perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups, or as a normal-sized portion in a coffee cup.

Prep time: 25 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

12 savoiardi, plus more for garnish

1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee, either decaf or regular

Rum, optional

Cocoa powder

Directions

1. Put the yolks into the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk, using the highest setting, until light yellow and fluffy, at least 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the sugar and 2 ounces of water in a small saucepan until it bubbles and reaches 250 F on a candy thermometer.

3. While the standing mixer is still running on its highest setting, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the yolks, and continue whisking for 15 minutes. It’s important to whisk them for this long so that the mixture stays fluffy when you add the next ingredients.

4. Add the mascarpone and heavy cream and beat on a medium setting just until combined, about 20 seconds. You can reserve this custard, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

5. To assemble: Brew the espresso or coffee (you’ll need 1 cup if you’re making all at the same time, or just a shot each if making only a few). Break one savoiardo into each espresso cup, or two, into each coffee mug or dessert bowl. Pour the espresso over the savoiardi so they are fully moistened, and if you like, add a splash of rum. Top with a generous dollop or two of mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

Note: For a two-tone effect, dust half the surface of the tiramisu with cocoa powder and the other half with savoiardi crumbs.

Fruity Tiramisu (Zuppa Tartara)

Beautiful and takes just seconds to assemble using supermarket ingredients.

Savoiardi  layered with your favorite flavor jam and sweetened ricotta. The whole thing firms up so nicely, you can slice it like pound cake, creating an effortless, virtually instant, no-bake cake.

This dessert is so light and easy to make that it might be surprising to learn that the recipe comes from an 1890s cookbook, the famed “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi.

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons sugar

Pinch ground cinnamon

1/3 cup your favorite jam, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons sweet liqueur or rum

12 savoiardi

Directions

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and beat with a fork until smooth. Reserve.

2. In a shallow bowl combine the jam with 1/4 cup warm water and the liqueur or rum. Dip the savoiardi, a few at a time, into the mixture until they are nicely moistened. Place four onto a serving plate, side by side, and spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over them. Top the ricotta with small dollops of extra preserves. Repeat. Finish with final layer of dipped savoiardi and a final drizzle of preserves, or any of the remaining preserves liquid and bits.

3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least hour, until set. Serve cold.

Main photo: Store-bought ladyfingers are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this “instant” chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)



Zester Daily contributor Francine Segan, a food historian and expert on Italian cuisine, is the author of six books, including "Pasta Modern" and "Dolci: Italy's Sweets." She is a host on i-italy TV and is regularly featured on numerous specials for PBS, the Food Network and the History, Sundance and Discovery channels.

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