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A spoonful of sugar. And coffee. And cocoa. And....

In my former life as a ballet dancer, food didn't really play a starring role. It was what one didn't eat that counted. But there were occasional treats, and whether it was their scarcity that elevated these culinary highlights to the sublime, or whether they were genuinely deserving of the misty-hued memory I have of them, I'll never know. I am confident, however, that the following recipe stands the test of time.

At the première of any new ballet, an Italian friend of mine (and fellow dancer) used to make two huge trayfuls of tiramisù, leaving them in the corps-de-ballet's dressing room for anyone not on a starvation diet to dip into. Both trays were always shiny-clean by the curtain call. I clearly wasn't the only one who couldn't resist the hypnotic lure of this Italian classic! Indeed, for me, these spectacular traybakes were every bit as exciting (sometimes more so...) than the ballet we were about to perform: velvety clouds of sugar-sweet cream, floating miraculously above marsala-and-espresso-doused sponge biscuit. The concept was genius; eating it was revelatory - and about as far away from its English relative, the trifle, as one could get. Forget an overly alcoholic, soggy mess, disguised by an excess of syrupy fruit; each mouthful of this Mediterranean concoction was melt-in-the-mouth pudding perfection.

In a manner most unbecoming of a weight-watching ballet dancer, I nagged my friend to pass on her recipe to me, and eventually she cracked. As Sylvana listed all the non-diet ingredients (cream, sugar, marsala, cocoa etc) I would need, she explained that the word 'ti?ami?su' literally translates as "pick-me-up", since it contains almost every edible stimulant one can legally consume. Allegedly, it was the dish that Italian women fed their lovers to reignite the flames of passion, believing it had the power to, ahem, perk things up.

If you'd like to put the theory to the test, I urge you to try Sylvana's recipe out for yourself, and if the promised pick-me-up doesn't thrill you, I can at least guarantee that the dessert will.

You will need:

  • 500 g mascarpone
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • about 30 sponge fingers
  • 350 ml cooled espresso coffee
  • 3 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 50 ml marsala wine

And here's what to do:

  1. Make the coffee, and leave it to cool.
  2. Then beat the egg yolks together with the sugar. When it's starting to look creamy, dollop the mascarpone in, along with half the marsala wine, and continue to beat until everything is well combined.
  3. With clean utensils, whip the egg whites until stiff, then gently fold them into the mascarpone mix.
  4. Pour the espresso into a shallow bowl, along with the other half of Marsala and a teaspoon of cocoa powder.
  5. Dip the sponge fingers into the cooled coffee mix, one by one, and lay into a glass serving bowl (roughly 20 cm in diameter).
  6. Pour half the mascarpone mix on top of the sponge fingers foundation, and dust with sifted cocoa powder.
  7. Repeat the layers, being careful that the sponge fingers sit gently on the mascarpone and don't sink beneath its creamy depths.
  8. Chill for at least four hours before serving.
  9. Feed to your lover. Enjoy!

Last updated 15:43 on 11 June 2018

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