A winter storm blanketed the city last Tuesday. Emerging from the subway stop at the West 12th stop felt like stepping into a snow globe: delicate, feathery flakes swirled thickly in the air, threatening to obscure the neat rows of brownstones that line the cobblestone streets of the West Village. In this weather, the city looks quietly beautiful—vulnerable almost. The whiteness softens the grit and grime and the crooked roads of the village are smooth and bright and pristine with snow.
Pretty as it is, it’s the slippery sort of snow that feels both slushy and icy under my feet. I navigate the few blocks to the restaurant carefully, placing one foot firmly in front of the other, hurrying to get out of the biting wind. Cold bits of ice land inside my jacket hood, nipping at my cheeks.
The restaurant’s striped awning beckons to me; it’s situated right on the corner of West Fourth. Big glass picture windows offer a glimpse of the room inside, glowing and cozy. I step into the vestibule. I shake the snow off my jacket and stomp my feet a few times. The host ushers me in and whisks me over to a corner table right in the front of the restaurant looking out onto the street.
I settle into the cushioned banquette and order a hot lemon water, more to warm my hands than anything else. The restaurant feels as Parisian as Paris itself: worn wooden plank floors, a wraparound bar with the daily specials scrawled in gold on the mirrored walls behind it, servers in cheery striped tops. Around the room, a few tables of two are already having breakfast. I watch, hungrily, as their food arrives: thick brioche French toast dotted with blackberries and swimming in lemon curd, slices of toasted pumpernickel bread draped in lox, a postcard-worthy plate of eggs Benedict—the golden edges of the English muffins barely visible under a velvety layer of hollandaise sauce.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone enter the restaurant: tall, in a handsome woolen overcoat, with a briefcase in hand. I leap up, wreathed in smiles, when I realize it’s my dad: the very nicest Tuesday breakfast date around.
He sits down with me and we order, then happily fall into conversation. The snow keeps falling outside as we eat. There’s a flawless omelette for me, executed as only French bistros properly do: bright yellow from the yolks and smoothly rolled with nary a speck of browning on the exterior. The omelette is flecked with green herbs and each bite oozes with Gruyere cheese. For my dad, neat triangles of multigrain toast with butter and seedy raspberry jam, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a foamy cappuccino. (Isn’t it so comforting to see people follow their routines? My dad with his orange juice in the mornings. His way of holding the butter knife just so, of tapping the crumbs gently as he picks up his toast.)
When we finish, he gathers his things and rushes to the subway to a business meeting in midtown. I linger at the table, writing a few emails and listening to the chatter as the lunch crowd starts to fill the restaurant around me. It’s quintessential New York: a table of loud tourists crowd in the back, to my left is a group of nattily-dressed men feasting on burgers—heads bent in serious work conversation, and to my right are two young-ish guys in jeans and sweatshirts. I take a closer look and guess to myself: “indie band members….no, no…movie director maybe. Restauranteur, perhaps? Owner of two very cool Brooklyn coffee shops?” Then I realize that movie director is spot on, as I recognize one of the guys as an actor from Gossip Girl and the other, clearly interviewing him for a role.
I step around their table and out into the swirling snow. It’s nice to be here, in this city, in this cold winter world, on this day.
I go home, full of thoughts of Paris. I admire French food greatly—both the haute cuisine of white tablecloth dining destinations, and the simplicity of casual bistros and cafes. Even less fussy forms of French food are so satisfyingly well-thought out: each dish a study of texture and acid and butter and seasoning. Desserts too, are created with the kind of balance that can only be achieved over centuries of execution.
Which brings me to today’s recipe which is not French in provenance, but Italian, although I’ve given it a French twist. Tiramisu is of course, a classic Italian dessert made of coffee-soaked ladyfingers layered with mascarpone cream. It’s lovely in its most traditional form, but I particularly like elevating it with some principles of French pastry in mind: turning the mascarpone cream from a custard into more of an airy mousse and giving the coffee soak a little more flavor and sophisticated with booze and espresso powder.
Making the filling into a whipped mousse creates a sliceable, pretty cake rather than a looser, more pudding-like dessert. Think of this as a slightly firmer, more stable version of a basic tiramisu.
For this recipe, I used hot brewed coffee for the coffee soaking syrup. If you go this route, use very strong coffee. You can tailor it to your taste—make it stronger for a more pronounced coffee flavor. I like to use brandy in the syrup, but you can also use coffee liquor or dark rum for a delicious boozy taste. Or, leave it out altogether if you want a booze-free version!
I’ve made the filling two ways: one is as written. The other is with the addition of a bit of gelatin to stabilize the cake a little more and make the filling a bit firmer and less loose. Honestly, I prefer the cake without the gelatin, but if you’re wanting it to be a party centerpiece, gelatin will help it stay a bit more pretty and precise-looking for longer. In that case, just dissolve 10g gelatin powder in 50ml of cold water and set aside. After mixing the mascarpone into the custard, heat the gelatin briefly so you can stir it, and fold that mixture into the filling along with the whipped cream.
I’ve included instructions for shaping the cake two ways: one, in a round springform pan and two, in a standard loaf pan. The benefit of the springform pan is that you don’t need to line the pan and can just slide off the outside collar to slice and serve. I like the loaf pan option because it makes a nice precise rectangular cake—bear in mind, if you go that route, you’ll want to line the pan with plastic wrap so it’s easy for the cake to flip out later. Also, if you choose that option, know that your bottom layer will become your top layer, so if you want a base of ladyfingers, finish with a top layer of them as you build it. Also, the plastic wrap can leave a messy pattern on the outside of the cake, so I always finish it with a thin coating of whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder.
Tiramisu Mousse Cake
For the coffee syrup
1 cup very strong brewed coffee, hot
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon espresso powder (optional, for more coffee flavor and color)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoons brandy
For the filling
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup (134g) sugar
1 teaspoon dark rum or vanilla extract
2¼ cups (500g) mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 cups (480ml) heavy cream
about 200g (7 oz) ladyfingers
For finishing (optional)
Whisk together all the syrup ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Make the filling: Fill a saucepan with 2-3 inches of water. Place over medium heat-high heat and bring the water to a vigorous simmer. In medium heatproof bowl, place the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla (or rum). Set the mixing bowl over the saucepan of simmering water (make sure the bottom of the mixing bowl doesn’t touch the water) and start whisking. Keep whisking constantly until the sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture begins to thicken, almost doubling in volume, and getting foamy. It’s a lot easier to do this step using an electric hand mixer! It'll take awhile—about 5 minutes or so, so it’s tough to do it by hand with a whisk. Remove from the heat, set the mixing bowl aside, and let it cool for about 15 minutes.
While the custard cools, whip the heavy cream to medium-stiff peaks.
Add the mascarpone to the cooled custard and whisk until smooth.
Fold the whipped cream gently into the mascarpone mixture.
To assemble the cake: Dip the ladyfingers, one at a time, in the coffee syrup mixture, taking care to soak each one fully but quickly. You don’t want to let them get too wet and soggy—you can, alternatively, place the ladyfingers in the pan first and brush the syrup over them but I find this doesn’t impart quite enough flavor.
Line a 9” x 5” pan with plastic wrap — or use a 9” round springform pan (in which case, no need to line the pan with plastic wrap) — and line the bottom with a layer of soaked ladyfingers. Top with a thick layer of filling, then another layer of ladyfingers, and so on. I like to do three layers of ladyfingers and thicker layers of filling, but you can arrange them however you like. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you’re ready to serve, if you’ve used a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, flip the pan over onto a plate, remove the pan and gently remove the plastic wrap. At this point, I like to whip a little more whipped cream and lightly coat the top of the cake so it looks prettier, then dust it with a little cocoa powder. If you’ve used a springform pan, you can simply remove the outside ring and slice and serve.