I've seen tiramisu recipes that start with pound cake, angel food cake or sponge cake. In my mind, however, it's not tiramisu unless it's made with the crisp Italian ladyfingers called savoiardi. The soft American version won't do -- you need a crisp little cake to soak up the mixture of coffee and liqueur that gives tiramisu its name, which translates to "pick me up." Look for savoiardi with the imported cookies in well-stocked supermarkets or seek out an Italian grocery.
On the other hand, classic tiramisu is made with well-beaten but uncooked eggs. I prefer this custard-based version, which has an appealing texture and lovely flavor. Reducing worries about food safety, especially when transporting the dessert to a holiday potluck, is a bonus. Just keep the tiramisu cold, either in the refrigerator or in an insulated carrier.
I created this recipe when I was making dessert for my book club -- and the discussion following dinner was, in a word, spirited.
Yield: 16 to 20 servings
6 egg yolks (see note)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup milk (2 percent or whole)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
1 pound mascarpone cheese
2 cups espresso or strong coffee, at room temperature
1 cup coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua)
About 12 ounces savoiardi (crisp Italian ladyfingers; see note)
About 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
In a medium saucepan, whisk together yolks and sugar. Whisk in milk. Place over medium heat. Stirring constantly with a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon, bring to a boil. As you stir, scrape the bottom and the sides of the pan. When slow bubbles rise and break the surface, reduce the heat to medium-low. Still stirring, cook until mixture thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat; pour into a large bowl. Stir in vanilla. Stir frequently until custard is cool enough to refrigerate. To prevent a skin from forming, cover the entire surface with a sheet of plastic wrap, pressing it against the custard. Refrigerate until cold.
When ready to proceed, whip cream until stiff peaks form.
Add half the mascarpone to cold custard; stir with a whisk until well blended. Whisk in the remaining mascarpone. Add whipped cream to the bowl. Fold whipped cream into custard mixture with a spatula, blending completely but being careful not to overmix. Set aside.
Stir together coffee and liqueur in a bowl or pan large enough to dip the ladyfingers. (A loaf pan is perfect.) One at a time, dip both sides of the ladyfingers into the mixture and arrange in a single layer covering the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Dip just enough ladyfingers to form a single layer. Set aside the remaining ladyfingers and dipping liquid.
Dollop half of the custard mixture over the soaked ladyfingers. Smooth into an even layer. (An offset spatula is the best tool for this task.)
Dip as many of the remaining ladyfingers as needed in the coffee mixture, making an even layer over the custard. Top with the remaining custard, smoothing it into an even layer. Spoon cocoa powder into a fine-mesh strainer and sprinkle over the top.
Cover with plastic wrap, taking care not to touch the surface of the tiramisu. Refrigerate until set, at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.