So very many of my childhood memories of celebration dinners focus on tables of pasta and sauce, adult relatives sipping cappuccinos and the moment a string is untied on a big white box. Growing up in a very Italian family in New York, the box, which someone likely picked up in back in Brooklyn and brought out to the festivities on the island, would have certainly contained delicate Napoleons, irresistible cannolis (my favorite as a youth), a slice or two of cheesecake, biscotti (which I did not comprehend as a cookie until years later), fascinating, seemingly thousand-fold sfogliatelle (my grandma Gloria’s ricotta cream-filled favorite) and of course, decadent tiramisu, that I’m sure more than one relative immediately put a claim on.
Vegan Tiramisu after an evening in the fridge. I’ll get to that.
Tiramisu, which my research has led me to learn is Italian* for “carry me up” — how romantic — is one of those dishes you almost don’t dare veganize. It’s a fantastical leap between the let down and the potential; possibly insulting your memories (not to mention tradition, which would bring tears and fury), while hopefully, creating something altogether new and exciting.
Something that could make you both forget, and remember.
Is it a risk worth taking? For the sake of animal-free creativity, potential and the culinary adventure itself: Absolutely.
Okay, I may not know the truly scientific aspects of food chemistry or claim to be any type of Italian bakery aspect, but I do know a thing or two about flavors, ingredients, and my own memories. I can fondly recall being given small bites of my late mother’s wonderfully rich, espresso-soaked, mascarpone-hugged dessert at restaurants (Ah, ristorante), and even ‘helping’ her make it at home, learning that we were using ‘ladyfingers’. There was this indulgently sinful aspect that I barely comprehended but delighted me all the same, knowing that it contained both coffee and alcohol (seriously: Italian family + Catholic schooling). Just recently, my sister, upon hearing I was making it for this recent dinner party to follow, shared how our brother had helped her make a truly traditional tiramisu from scratch on a recent (and rare) holiday they shared together, with his own ‘dainty fingers’. Inspiring and adorable.
Nearly a decade ago, I found myself super into Tofutti-riffic cheesecake making when I first gave up animal products, bringing them to excited vegans whenever there was a potluck or party. You may find this a little crazy or foody-snooty, but it’s true…..one day, I realized I just felt so blasé about what I was doing. What I was creating was absolutely nothing like the memories of creamy, ricotta cheesecakes of my youth. Sure, there were getting similar to Philadelphia cream cheese affairs, but that wasn’t me. I can’t think of anything else ‘veganized’ that does this to me.
Was I that delusional? Why was I spending money to put three tubs of an existing imitation product into a dessert?! I’ve got to give it up for raw cheesecakes, however. Now those are impressive, decadent creations. Tiramisu seemed a similar note, yet, with J. Legume preparing risotto for a dinner party, it seemed the right time to try. It’s certainly been done before, but I wanted my own Italian vegan culinary adventure.
Now, how to embark?
*a language I must confess that as a child, I assumed comprehension would come intuitively as I aged into my own little Italian lady. Nothing yet.
Now, there are three parts to the creation of the eventual tiramisu in this tale..
1) Soy Party! The Mascarpone Filling
Let me start with a warning, because of a mild cashew allergy (that I’m begging to fade out of my life) and annoyed aversion to (the delightful) soaked cashew cream possibilities, I picked up more Tofutti products for this dessert than I seemingly had in years. Could I capture some of the traditional mascarpone magic? The greatest vegan tiramisu I’ve had the pleasure of knowing was non-surprisingly, a raw creation from Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco I enjoyed a few years back, followed by the evolved adaptation at a certain vegan trattoria. I wanted to go all out and overcome my notions of vegan cream cheese desserts in the past. I was ready (plus, I had an unopened tub of Better than Sour Cream J. Legume had picked up for tacos, urging me on). It seemed clear that the tangy and sweet, obsessive cheesecake batter flavors of my early vegan baking days would work quite nicely in this Italian trifle.
I based my cream on the filling in this recipe from Veggywood, puréeing a base of 1 and 1/4 cups of Tofutti cream cheese, 1 and 1/2 cups of Tofutti sour cream, 1/2 cup of silken tofu (because I couldn’t commit myself or my wallet to all of that product, okay?), 1/2 cup So Delicious coconut creamer, 2-3 teaspoons cornstarch, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bourbon extract, roughly 1 and 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar and just less than 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice in my Vita-Mix, and then letting the mixture sit for a few hours in the fridge to firm up. Please know that if I hadn’t pureed the tofu into the mix to lighten things up, I would have whipped this creme with an electric mixer. After setting for two hours and a taste test, it was getting more than mildly exciting in my kitchen. You could certainly attempt making this a bit more stable (a la Rad Whip, perhaps) with the careful addition of some warmed agar, if you’ve had success, I’d love to hear about it.
One more note: This cream made enough for 3 cake layers’ worth of layered tiramisu action. I would definitely use the same amount for two, easily.
Traditionally speaking, tiramisu calls for sponge cake or ladyfingers. While a recipe for gluten-free ladyfingers does exist, so many of the recipes I wandered across in vegan internet land for ladyfingers were simply sliced cake, and since I was doing both traditional and gluten-free versions of this dessert for my guests (duh), I decided to bake some dang cake and make things a little easier on myself. Sometimes I think ahead like that. I used a gluten-free vanilla cake mix (and threw in some homemade vanilla cardamom extract and extra sour cream for the heck of it, aka sanity’s sake) that I wouldn’t recommend, or else I’d reveal it here. It wasn’t wretched or anything, since it was soaked in espresso and cream, which helps everything. Ever.
Make-shift, gluten-free ladyfinger slices
Let me add that I’ve since had much more success with the Trader Joe’s gluten-free baking mix. The vanilla cake was the golden cupcake recipe with the oil variation from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World (speaking of, I almost made the Tiramisu cupcakes from that book but opted for trifle action). Both cakes were cooled, sliced, and then oven toasted, biscotti-style, as shown below.
3) The Assembly: Glassware, Espresso, Booze, Patience & Cocoa Powder
For best results, you want to set your tiramisu overnight. That’s the only way it’ll be remotely sliceable. While individual dessert glasses (or wine glasses, small cups, ramekins, etc.) are definitely charming, I decided to prepare my dessert casserole (KIDDING) in a glass bread pan and glass casserole dish, which was then served in dessert glasses. It was a less elegant than I would have preferred, but this whole thing was a learning process, and the end result was far more lovely than I anticipated.
We had a nice reveal at the end of the evening where J. Legume confessed that the dessert glasses (she bought the set of on the cheap at Deseret Industries not too long ago) were actually her cat’s water glasses.
For the classy cat in your life
But I digress. Assembly-wise, I followed the directions of Veggywood’s layering with my own of briefly-espresso and brandy** soaked, toasted and cooled cake fingers, the cream, repeated as necessary, and finished with a sifting of unsweetened cocoa powder and shaved bittewsweet chocolate bar. The espresso was an dark roast Italian blend brewed in a stovetop Bialetti, which I highly recommend.
**While marsala wine , which I was out of, is most often seen in traditional recipes, brandy and rum are also used.
Traditional, vanilla gluten-y cake cuts
Layered & getting ready to go
There was something missing…
Gluten-free vegan tiramisu, check.
The gluten-y is pictured at the top of the post. It was utterly demolished by a small group within 30 minutes.
Dinner party prep.
The spread-in-progress, with J. Legume’s first pan of her delicious, just-made ‘cheesy wine’ rice, aka risotto, green leaf & amaranth greens, lemon-pickled fennel, sherry roasted beets, air-dried parmesan (AVC) and the start of the wines.
Immediately after everyone took a plate, I realized the balsamic roasted vegetables were waiting in the oven.
So just give me a moment…and then I can get back to obsessing over Thai curries and making my own cashew-free cream cheese, dammit.