Il Dolce

My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018

I am lucky enough to have had some experiences when life was so good that I actually felt jealous of myself.

Though most were falling-in-love-related, I put the evening I learned how to make tiramisu with Maria Grazia, in Northeast Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, on that list.

Maria Grazia’s home is in a tiny village nestled close to the larger medieval hill town of Brisighella. The buildings, in that old citadel of weathered and earthy tones of ochre, settle into the mountains and agriculturally landscaped countryside. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, but not intimidating; rather, it mirrors the orderly charm of a children’s book illustration.

And then: the food. I’m getting there. But first, how I got there: Clients of the venerable Bologna-based, small-group, Italian food travel company, Bluone, asked its owners, the affable, unflappable Raffa and Marcello Tori, for a tour combining creative writing (in English) and food tourism. And I was the writer the Toris found. Bliss!

While we visited some famed commercial producers with the Toris, the highlight of our tour was informally learning from great home cooks, and actually cooking with them in their own homes.

Such was our time with Maria Grazia, her husband Gianni, her adult daughter and that daughter’s darling little baby. At one point the baby was set down on the huge old wooden table, where she crawled around, plump and happy, cheerfully part of the evening. (I watched the eyes of Dr. M, an American physician on our tour, widen as he took this in … and then decide to be delighted.)

Though our visit was in winter, everything gleamed with a sheen of well-tendedness. A gnarled olive tree by the front door provided the bitter fruit from which came exceedingly good extra virgin olive oil. We not only tasted it, we saw, in the basement, the spigoted barrel of it, next to the wine from grapes Gianni had grown. He’d also fabricated a grill to fit the fireplace, and it was cordially ablaze that December night; there, the verdure were grilled. And speaking of cordials, we sampled homemade nocino, a sweet, potent walnut liqueur, after dinner.

Ah, dinner! Pillowy, egg-rich cushions of small pasta, stuffed with local cheeses. Improbably, we made these cappelleti (little hats) ourselves, under Maria Grazia’s tutelage.

As we did that creamy, dreamy tiramisu.

The word tiramisu is sometimes translated as “pick me up”; it does contain caffeine in the form of espresso. But if you’re someone who closes your eyes in a mini-swoon of pleasure when you place the first forkful of dessert perfection in your mouth, the other approximations — “cheer me up” or “lift me up” — make more sense.

A cousin of old-fashioned “icebox cakes” popular in mid 20th-century America, and even related, distantly, to that American dessert of chocolate wafers lined up against each other, mortared and frosted with whipped cream, and left overnight in the fridge to amalgamate, tiramisu layers a commercially baked cookie (Savoiardi — crisp Italian ladyfingers) with just a few ingredients. These soften into each other with miraculous results.

Some say they were invented in the 1960s in a Treviso restaurant, but we know for sure that soaked and layered concoctions go way back, and cross national borders. They are reinterpreted wherever they land. English trifle, for instance, grew more alcoholic, less like pudding and more cake-ish in Italy, where it’s named zuppa inglese (English soup).

And we also know for sure that every cook puts her, or his, own spin on it.

Maria Grazia’s was simple. Eggs (uncooked; get pasteurized eggs if this troubles you), sugar, coffee, mascarpone (to call mascarpone Italian cream cheese, as some do, is to make an equivalency between an angel’s wing and that of a pigeon), Savoiardi. A little cocoa. Not for Maria the cooking of eggs into custard, or backing up the coffee with marsala, or adding vanilla.

As easygoing as her recipe was her teaching. Her manner, her kitchen, the food we prepared and ate, the fire, the baby on the table … it all added up. And though it did not involve falling in love as generally understood, I felt, in that kitchen, in that generous country, in love in the sense that a fish is in water: encompassed by joy and well-being. Lifted up.