Trifling about

I know some people who insist Tiramisu is the perfect dessert. They get offended when I call it an Italian tipsy trifle, especially when I demonstrate the fact. It’s a great one, but that’s still all it is.

A trifle is, at its simplest, a series of layers of cake pieces and custard. Sometimes fruit is added to the stacks. Sometimes the cake pieces are soaked in liquids. If alcohol is added to the soaking (or the custard), it becomes a tipsy trifle.

A tiramisu is stacks of ladyfingers that have been soaked in an espresso-marsala wine mixture, alternated with a custard of mascarpone cheese and zabaglione, the latter of which is a custard of egg, sugar, and marsala wine. It’s a low stack made in a cake pan instead of a taller trifle dish (a vertically sided bowl), and usually has cocoa powder dusted on top (and sometimes between layers).

Cake, soaked in alcohol and other liquid, layered in alternate with custard. Yep, it’s a tipsy trifle.

Now, in the southern US the tipsy trifle is called a tipsy cake, with a more entertaining name of tipsy parson. Apparently these delectable desserts were frequent sights at church socials, and more than one preacher found himself violating any temperance vows he might hold. In honor of that, and in the interest of Tamara’s peach week, I thought I’d bring out my peachy parson recipe.

OVERVIEW: You’ll make a dip. You’ll make a custard. You’ll peel, pit, and thinly slice two peaches. You’ll take about 20 ladyfingers (make or purchase), dip them, and put down a bed of them in an 8×12 inch pan. You’ll cover them with half the custard. You’ll add another layer of dipped ladyfingers, and top that with the rest of the custard. You’ll lightly dust the top with cocoa powder (you need the bitter to balance the sweet), and refrigerate for four to eight hours before serving. Do not let your guests eat and drive.

The Dip.
1 1/4 cups espresso or other dark and rich coffee.
2 ounces peach brandy.
2 teaspoons sugar.
Combine in a shallow bowl – remember you need to dip your lady fingers in this.

The custard.
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
4 ounces (1/2 cup) peach brandy
1 lb mascarpone cheese
1 cup heavy whipping cream.
Double boiler.

Custard making is very easy once you ‘get it’. The trick is to avoid scrambling the eggs – too much heat too fast. So, get the water in your double boiler bottom at a simmer. Lightly beat the egg yolks and add them to the boiler and start beating them till they begin to get fluffy. Start beating in the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, getting each spoonful fully incorporated. Once you’ve got the sugar in, continue with the brandy. Whisk/beat this till it thickens slightly, which it will do just before it reaches boiling itself. Remove from heat.

In a separate LARGE bowl, mash the mascarpone to soften it. Add the (still warm) custard and stir till it’s all incorporated.

Whip the cream to soft peak stage. Fold it into the mascarpone custard.

Now let’s pause a moment to consider the alcohol content. Assuming your brandy was about 35% ABV, what you’ve got now is not more than 9% ABV — less whatever evaporated during the double boiler phase. It’s most likely about 7% ABV, or about what you get from a ‘normal’ glass of wine. If you taste test your custard, keep that in mind. Let’s get on with cooking.

Final ingredients.
Two peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced thinly.
1/4 cup cocoa powder.

ASSEMBLY. You should have 40 ladyfingers. Alternately, you can slice up a sponge cake – you want about 3/4 pound altogether here, or roughly half the normal sponge cake.

Take half the cake. Dip in the liquid and place in an 8×12 inch pan to form a bed of dipped cake.

Pour half the custard onto the cakes and spread evenly.

Make another of the peach slices, trying to cover the whole of the bed as much as possible.

Use all the remaining cakes to make another layer. If there’s dipping sauce remaining, sprinkle it evenly over the cake till gone.

Use the rest of the custard to make another layer.

Using a sifter, top the dish with the cocoa powder. Yes, use it all even if it looks a bit thick.

Cover. Put into a refrigerator for at least four hours. You can speed this a bit by putting it in the freezer for half an hour. If you leave it for an hour or more you need to give it time to thaw before serving.

Serving comments. This dish has an ABV similar to a typical wine. For everyone’s sake, make sure people don’t just eat and run. Don’t serve it at work unless work allows drinking on the job. Yeah, one glass is no big deal, and a serving is going to be about a glass. The problem is that if nobody expects the alcohol it’s a surprise, and often not in a good way.

Additional comments. There is literally NOTHING stopping you from making a stronger dip for your cakes. Too much alcohol will, however, interfere with the custard. Unless, of course, you add a bit more while folding in the whipped cream.

Thus you get to the point of the tipsy parson. This southern classic is an import from various European immigrants. Theoretically there’s only one ounce of whiskey or bourbon in the entire dish, which is in the dip or sprinkle for the cake. Indeed, almost every recipe you read will keep you to one or at most two ounces. In reality, there’s a habit of adding more ’till it looks good’. I leave the rest of that to the imagination, and the legend of far too many pastors (and parishioners) staggering about the social.

Final comment. The recipe above is almost exactly a tiramisu recipe, except for peach brandy instead of marsala and the addition of the peaches. Any sweet alcohol works fine. You can also use fruit juice or syrup as an alternative. Not all such work with the coffee, and feel free to drop that if it is in your taste. I always like coffee, and for me it works with peaches. Besides, like the cocoa it balances the sweet and rich of the remainder of the dish.

Enjoy.

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