It was his birthday two weeks ago and I am only now getting around to speaking about the Tiramisu that shouldn't have been. I had gone to the market and picked up marscarpone and ladyfingers among other items. I envisioned having the Marsala at home. We use Marsala often and I thought to myself, I must have coffee liqueur as tiramisu is a family favorite. I allotted the evening before his birthday to prepare the dessert. As often happens when I am rigid about keeping a specific schedule and fulfilling circumstances by a designated time, my carefully laid plan never came to fruition. I worked later than anticipated and then I had to help someone do something which at this moment escapes me, but it was significant. I remember it being significant. More significant than making tiramisu. I arrived home late in the evening, frustrated and disgruntled.
I woke the next morning, the morning of his birthday, at 5:30 am. I was going to make tiramisu for my husband. I'd like to say I wake up every morning that early to exercise or meditate, or do something meaningful, but the truth is 5:30 am activity is a rarity for me so this was a momentous occasion. It was quiet and dark in the kitchen. The window was open. A subtle breeze snuck in, enveloping me in morning chill. I gathered my ingredients from the pantry and realized I was missing some critical elements: Marsala and coffee liqueur. Another flaw in my plan, more spilled milk. I got anxious as I lost my illusion, albeit foolish illusion, of control. I hadn't the time to run back to the store before work, so I broke the rules and used ingredients that should not have worked. Articles on the internet emphatically declared, "do not substitute x, y or z. These are crucial to an authentic tiramisu." Miraculously, the tiramisu came out beautifully and was enjoyed by many. I have included my flawed recipe adapted from Epicurious below because it should not have worked, and it did. It shouldn't have been and it was.
This experience, although insignificant in the grand scheme of a lifetime was poignant and I can only try to understand why. It was dessert after all, not a peace treaty or a cure for a debilitating illness. It spoke to my error in imagining I can have any level of true control or perfect understanding. To me, perfectionism is a desire for the unattainable. If something is unattainable you can always keep yourself down, prey on your flaws and live perpetually imprisoned. It becomes safe to hold yourself at a distance rather than embracing your imperfections. To chastise and belittle is easy. To look at what is ugly and fallible in you, and others for that matter, and say I choose to accept you anyway takes courage. We are all worthy of that.
I speak of my personal experiences to combat with my words and my might the appeal of perfection that our culture dictates should be the desired outcome. That dreadful "should". What a reprehensible term. Should makes me doubt myself at each juncture looking for other people, things, or attributes to give me the feelings of security and esteem I could be giving to myself. It feels like a perverse journey of attainment, temporary relief and then additional seeking. A brief moment of peace followed by desperately canvassing our mind to find what we need next to be ok. I even seek perfect order in my thoughts. This is especially problematic when I have faulty neurons firing stupid sh*t that is least of all what I want to be dwelling on. The nagging feeling persists that in order to be acceptable, all must be just right. Guilt and shame creep in. I must put Marsala in my tiramisu, I must earn an impressive wage, I must please others, have control, have a plan, maintain a clean home, insert whatever limiting belief keeps you from being content in your mind and skin.
Although I rationally know otherwise, my wiring leads me to believe nothing less than certainty will do. Certainty that my tiramisu will turn out alright, that my husband's birthday will be saved. For the parents out there, the sentiment can be a desire to have your children turn out ok, for the professionals a desire to do your job perfectly well. I burden myself trying to discern what comprises a good life. What should be happening at this very moment? Are my thoughts and actions acceptable? Am I absolutely certain that I am living up to the standard I have set dictated by the pitfalls of the should, guilt, shame, and social comparison? But this certainly doesn't exist. All that exists in seeking certainty is cognitive dissonance that makes me anxious, and anxiety that makes my body ache, my mind uneasy. And it does not feel good, not in the least.
I cannot be any other place than I currently am at this instant. I cannot do better than my best. I cannot change my brain but I can lean into it and learn to love it and accept it. My environment and upbringing, my unique chemistry, the decisions I have made, a little luck and a dose destiny have led me to this very place. Panicked and barefoot in a cold kitchen with no Marsala. And it feels good when I let go of my need for certainty and control. The only thing we definitively have is right here, right now, mess and all. It is not perfect, but it is ours. Put the Sherry in your tiramisu. It'll turn out just fine.
- 2 cups boiling-hot water
- 3 tablespoons instant-espresso powder
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
- 3 tablespoons pumpkin pie liqueur (or coffee liqueur if you have it*)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup cream of sherry (or dry Marsala if the stars have aligned in your kitchen*)
- 1 pound mascarpone (2 1/2 cups)
- 1 cup chilled heavy cream
- 36 Italian ladyfingers; from two 7-ounce packages
- Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
- Stir together water, espresso powder, 1 tablespoon sugar, and liqueur in a shallow bowl until sugar has dissolved, then cool.
- Beat egg yolks, Sherry, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water using a handheld electric mixer until tripled in volume, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove bowl from heat. Beat in mascarpone until just combined.
- Beat cream in a large bowl until it holds stiff peaks.
- Fold mascarpone mixture into whipped cream gently but thoroughly.
- Dipping both sides of each ladyfinger into coffee mixture, line bottom of a 13- by 9- by 3-inch baking pan with 18 ladyfingers in 3 rows, trimming edges to fit if necessary. (I did this wrong as well. I filled the dish with cream first. I have no idea why but I wanted to line the bottom with cream, which doesn't make much sense because the cookies make for a more stable base when serving. Regardless, it firmed up just fine in the refrigerator and serving was not difficult. No one noticed the difference. Lesson: how the catastrophes in our narrow minded outlooks are really anything but catastrophic.)
- Spread half of mascarpone filling on top. Dip remaining 18 ladyfingers in coffee and arrange over filling in pan.
- Spread remaining mascarpone filling on top and dust with cocoa. Chill, covered, at least 6 hours.
- Let tiramisu stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving, then dust with more cocoa.