Strawberry-Green Tea Tiramisu

IMG_3817I must have momentarily blacked out when I took my first bite of tiramisu. I have such a vague trace of memory of that evening. I was on a date, as I recall, in some Italian restaurant tucked into a suburb of Baton Rouge. I remember the tiramisu sitting on a dessert plate in front of me, my fork sinking into it, and that first rapturous taste… and I remember nothing else of that evening whatsoever. Clearly, whats-his-name and I were not meant to be, but my relationship with tiramisu was just beginning! Where have you been all my life?!

As it turns out, tiramisu is an Italian invention that’s not so old that you might call it “traditional”. Experts debate its exact birthplace and birthday but it doesn’t go back much further in history than I do (somewhere in the 1970s). In other words, the image of some wise, Italian grandmother making tiramisu in an old-world kitchen are more fiction than fact. Though many variations exist, they’re all essentially based on the same basic tastes and idea: ladyfingers dipped in an espresso-liqueur mixture then layered with creamy mascarpone cheese, then topped with a dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder. Essentially, the tastes are coffee, booze, chocolate, and rich dairy. The idea? Well, “tiramisu” roughly translates from Italian as “pick-me-up” or “pull-me-up”. That pretty much speaks for itself.

It wasn’t too long after that first encounter that I decided to try to make homemade tiramisu (surely you’re not surprised). After making it for my roommates and select dinner guests a few times, I gradually began to wonder if perhaps there was more to tiramisu than met the eye. Sure, coffee, chocolate, and rich dairy are all well and good, but was the potential for even greater dessert euphoria hidden inside tiramisu?

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I was a diligent home cook, in those days, but relatively inexperienced. So, my thought process in creating a “new” tiramisu variation was a tad flawed, but my heart was in the right place.

“What’s the opposite of coffee?” I thought.

“Tea!” I answered myself.

“What’s the opposite of chocolate?” I asked.

“Vanilla!” I answered.

And so it continued until I happened upon the idea of drenching ladyfingers with a mixture of strong green tea and mashed strawberries instead of espresso and liqueur. To add more oomph to the taste, I added sliced strawberries to the layers. For the fluffy mascarpone element, I kept it rich, but flavored it with a powerful dose of vanilla rather than booze and chocolate.

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Over the years, I’ve tweaked the recipe to balance and develop the flavors, texture, and presentation; but it is still essentially the same creation I presented to my best-friend/roommate, Amanda, back in 2004. It was an evening that had no particular occasion or sentiment attached to it. I think we must’ve both blacked out, because I don’t remember too many other details about that evening. What I do recall is that we each had two servings, that night, and then promptly split the remaining four servings for breakfast the next morning before class! Behold! The power of tiramisu!

Let’s Talk Ingredients

Green Tea — For years, I assumed I did not like tea. Then, one day, I discovered green tea and I loved it — especially when it was combined with herbal or fruit teas. You can imagine my confusion when I found out that green tea, black tea, white tea — they all come from the same plant. The only difference is the amount of time the leaves are allowed to oxidize before they are dried. Black tea is oxidized the longest, so it has a strong, dark taste. Green tea is oxidized far less so it has a much more delicate and agreeable taste, in my opinion. White tea, by the way, is harvested when the leaves are quite a bit younger and they undergo IMG_3820even less oxidation before drying. For this reason, white tea has a very slight taste — far too slight to stand up to strawberries and mascarpone!

For this recipe, the best green tea to choose would be organic loose green tea leaves since these are most often the highest quality of leaves and make the purest tea. If you aren’t able to find loose tea leaves, though, or you don’t think you’ll have much use for them other than this recipe, you could substitute 2-3 green tea bags in place of the 1 tablespoon of green tea leaves called for. Different tea companies use different amounts of tea in their bags, so be sure to eyeball it carefully to be sure you’re using enough. You will need to bring the water to a boil and then measure it so that you’re getting exactly 1/2 cup of boiling water (this does make a significant difference in the measurement, believe it or not). Allow the tea to steep for longer than you would a cup of tea you would drink — you want to extract every bit of the flavor from the leaves. Finally, squeeze the leaves or tea bags into the cup when you remove them, so that none of the flavor or liquid is thrown out.

Ladyfingers — No ladies were harmed in the making of this dessert! Ladyfingers are actually little pieces of dry sponge cake with very little taste of their own. They’re quite brittle and typically come in boxes IMG_3818where they’re packed in plastic sleeves of 10-12 fingers each. I’ve yet to find them in the same place twice from supermarket to supermarket. Sometimes they’re near the cookies. Sometimes they’re near the crackers. Sometimes they’re in the “international” section. Don’t give up! You may need to ask your grocer where to find them. If you can’t find them anywhere, though, you could substitute plain sponge cake or angel food cake (though you’d have to cut the pieces yourself and the taste would be a little different). I would advise against substituting pound cake, however, since pound cake typically has far too much buttery flavor in it and the other flavors in the recipe would be lost.

Strawberries — I highly recommend organic, in-season, local, fresh strawberries for this recipe — there really is no comparison in taste, honestly. If you’re just dying to try it, though, and you aren’t able to get decent fresh strawberries, you could substitute frozen organic strawberries. In that case, you’ll have to mash them instead of slicing them and the berries may require a tiny bit more sugar in order to reach the right tart-to-sweet balance.

Mascarpone Cheese — In simplest terms, this is Italian cream cheese. In reality, though, it has a much softer texture (somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream) and is decidedly richer. These days, you should be able to find it in almost any supermarket, but some supermarkets charge quite a bit for it, depending on where you live. Here in the Chicago area, the price and container size varies widely from store to store. If the price your market charges for mascarpone is discouraging, you could substitute an equal amount of neufchatel cheese and still have a greatIMG_3812 tiramisu experience. If you do substitute neufchatel for the mascarpone, you may need to add a tiny bit more milk to the mixture so that it’s as spreadable as the original mixture.

Neufchatel Cheese — The story of “American” Neufchatel cheese is the story of a mistake put to good use. Some wayward farmer in the late 1800s was attempting to make Neufchatel cheese (a cheese originating in France) and instead wound up with something completely different! These days, “American” Neufchatel cheese can be found right next to cream cheese in your supermarket. If you can’t find it, “1/3 Less Fat Cream Cheese” is basically the same thing with a name that is decidedly less fancy.

Vanilla Paste — I discovered vanilla paste only a year or two ago. While you may have to go to a gourmet IMG_3675shop to find it, it’s worth seeking out for the extra vanilla punch it provides (I buy all of my vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and vanilla paste here). Essentially, it’s a syrup made from vanilla extract which is then combined with pulp from vanilla beans. When you mix vanilla paste into whipped cream, cookies, or just about anything, you not only get the extra vanilla flavor, you get that gourmet appearance of vanilla beans that heightens the overall presentation — all without having to split and scrape the vanilla beans yourself. If you can’t find vanilla paste, the same amount of a high-quality vanilla extract will do just fine in its place.

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Strawberry-Green Tea Tiramisu

A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 8

    1 tablespoon loose green tea leaves (or 2-3 tea bags)
    1/2 cup boiling water
    1 1/2 teaspoons honey
    1 pound fresh strawberries, washed and hulled, divided
    1 teaspoon granulated sugar
    8 ounces mascarpone cheese
    4 ounces neufchatel cheese, softened
    1/2 cup granulated sugar
    1 tablespoon vanilla paste
    1 tablespoon 1% lowfat milk
    35-40 ladyfingers (2 3.5-ounce packages)
    additional strawberries for garnish (optional)

    Add the loose tea leaves into a tea ball and place it in a cup (if using tea bags, put all of them into the cup at once). Pour boiling water over the tea; steep 7 minutes. Remove the tea ball or bags, pressing the leaves or bags to extract all of the liquid and flavor. Stir in the honey until dissolved. In a small bowl, mash enough of the strawberries to create 1/4 cup of mashed berries (mash them as uniformly as possible). Pour the mashed strawberries into the green tea and stir to combine; set aside.

    Slice the remaining strawberries into thin slices in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, stir gently to combine; set aside.

    Using a mixer on medium-low speed, cream together the mascarpone and softened neufchatel in a large bowl just until smooth (do not over mix). Add the granulated sugar, vanilla paste, and milk; mix until sugar has dissolved and mixture is slightly fluffy.

    Line the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish with ladyfingers (approximately 18 ladyfingers); cutting them as necessary to form a single layer. Drizzle half of the green tea mixture over the lady fingers. Top with half of the sliced strawberries, spreading to make an even layer. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture evenly over the strawberries. Repeat layers once more, ending with mascarpone mixture. Garnish with additional strawberries, if desired. Refrigerate loosely covered for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve chilled.

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Layered desserts are always a lot of fun — so many tastes to explore individually and together! Here, the green tea and strawberries provide a fruity, floral fresco against the sturdy backdrop of mascarpone and vanilla beans. The ladyfingers absorb the tea-and-strawberry infusion and also the excess juices from the sliced strawberries, becoming something much greater than their former selves — you won’t recognize them! A bite of this is, at once, rich and yet light and refreshing — a decadent dessert dichotomy.

Strawberry season comes but once each year. This recipe takes on the full flavor of the season, accentuating the wildness and the richness of strawberry flavor — a memory that will linger long after strawberry season has passed.

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~ by Jason on June 30, 2011.

4 Responses to “Strawberry-Green Tea Tiramisu”

  1. Love reading your descriptions of memories, and then the recipes themselves. You need to publish a book.
    Hugs to you both.
    Sally

    • Thank you, Sally. I like to think that, someday — when I’ve collected enough original recipes and when I feel like there’s a niche for such a cookbook – I might actually make a book. For now, though, it’s a fond daydream of mine, and I do enjoy sharing these memories and recipes in cyberspace while biding my time.

      Incidentally, James is out of town for a week (at an annual conference). I’ve lined up a few recipes to develop while he’s away (this way he doesn’t have to help me clean up the mess!). Hopefully I’ll get a few more keepers out of all of this solo time.

      Hugs to you too! 🙂

  2. If this is what James shared with Karen and I, it was SO good!!! I bow down to your prowess in the kitchen Jason!!!

    • Thanks, Amy. Yes, this was the dessert James shared with the both of you. I heard it was not exactly chilled by the time you had it. So, I guess when I make another, I owe you a better serving than the one you had! 🙂

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