The naughty history of tiramisu

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

The origin of the most famous Italian dessert stirs up passions in Italy! In her kitchen overlooking the Sienese landscape, Marta looks at us puzzled as she answers our question: ”Siena, of course!” she says with her cute Italian accent. Born and raised in Siena, the passionate cook graduated from the International Chef Academy has created her cooking school back in 2015. Marta Ciappi takes the dispute on the origins of tiramisu between Siena in Tuscany and Treviso in Veneto quite seriously.

If tiramisu became popular worldwide rather recently, it was most probably invented at the end of the 17th century.

A new sweet would have been ordered to the pastry chefs of the city to satisfy Cosimo III de’ Medici’s sweet tooth upon his first visit to Siena. He got very fond of the cake that was called “zuppa del Ducca” (Duke’s Soup) in his honour (and still qualifies a soft dessert that you eat with a spoon) and brought the recipe back to Florence with him, from where it spread within Italy and to Veneto. This history does not quite explain the strange name “tiramisu” that can be translated as “pull me up”.

This is where the naughty legend comes in the picture. In the old times, sweets were attributed aphrodisiac properties and offered to patrons of brothels. The original recipe includes eggs, coffee, mascarpone and Marsala. With its high fat and sugar content combined to a caffeine shot, the tiramisu was a real calorie bomb giving an immediate energy boost and was very appreciated by brothel customers.

It is more or less in the 1970’s that the recipe crossed borders and a more respectable and moral origin was presented: the world-famous cake would have been invented in Le Beccherie restaurant in Treviso. Originally, it would have been created to give an energy boost to tired pregnant or nursing women, and this would explain the absence of alcohol in that recipe.

If the origin of the tiramisu is mostly speculations, the traditional recipe of the most famous dessert of Italy is a sure thing, and there is no better place than Siena to learn it from the chef!

Marta’s Recipe for 6 people:


  • One cold coffee
  • 60 grams of sugar
  • 250 grams of Mascarpone (the one with the greatest fat content)
  • 3 eggs (3 yolks, 2 whites)
  • Lady fingers
  1. Prepare a coffee and let it cool down.
  2. Mix the yolk and 30 grams of sugar until the colour becomes whiter. It is properly mixed with the appropriate consistency when you can write with it.
  3. Incorporate the mascarpone at room temperature, bits by bits, scooping it very gently. Once all the mascarpone has been added, continue with the mixer at low speed until it forms a very smooth paste.
  4. Wash the whisk as they have to be clean to stiffen the egg whites. When they start foaming, add the remaining sugar bits by bits. You have reached the right consistency when you can turn the bowl upside down!
  5. Very carefully scoop in the egg whites in the yolk. It is important to have it creamy and not to liquid.
  6. Spread a thin layer of cream into the dish for the lady fingers to stick better. Soak them briefly in the cold coffee and alternate a layer of cookies with a layer of cream covered by a thin layer of unsweetened cacao powder, changing the direction of the cookies for each layer.
  7. Put your tiramisu in the fridge for the flavours to mix better. It can be kept up to three to four days.

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience and learn from the chef how to make the perfect tiramisu and traditional Italian dishes, reach out to Marta Ciappi who also runs online classes.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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4 thoughts on “The naughty history of tiramisu

    • Bonaire is unexpected! I have to admit that some of the best pastas I have had are in a small village, an hour from Cape Town – yes, run by a proud family of Italians!
      Now you have to try to recipe to see if you can do better than Bonaire 😉

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