Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Tarot of Tiramisu

     As I write this, the month of June is finally disappearing in the rear view mirror. We’re well out of that, boys and girls.  If June were a Tarot card, its images might include a gleaming tower in semi-collapse; a bolt of lightning zigzagging across dark skies; a river overflowing from torrents of rain; and for good measure, perhaps, a jester fumbling with a fiddle. And in the foreground, just off center, a cheery ceramic mixing bowl and a sturdy wire whisk.
     I’ve been baking these past weeks. There’s something reassuring about turning your attention away from your worries and focusing on a recipe for, say, a lemon cream cake loaded with Limoncello or an angel-light chiffon. Of course, the prospect of eating the cake once it’s out of the oven and cooled brightens the mood, but the life-affirming act of creating the treat can be its own reward.   By your own hand, the simplest ingredients – eggs, sugar, flour -- measured accurately, whipped or beaten or folded together then baked according to clear and rational directions are transformed into something beautiful, extraordinary, delectable.
     The scene outside the kitchen window might be in a state of flux and fluster, but at your oven, you regain control. You are invincible. You’ve returned order to the kingdom. Justice again prevails.  The meek shall inherit, and so forth. Somewhere, maybe in the middle of America or a small village in the south of France, after a busy restaurant has closed for the day and the front-of-the-house lights are dimmed, a baker removes his floured apron and begins to write, “The Pastry Chef’s Guide to World Domination.”

(Judgment from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, 15th Century)

     Which is why you should make tiramisu.
     The ubiquitous Italian delight is trotted out after many a dish of pasta, and often quite badly, occasionally fruited up with in-season berries, desecrated with mounds of tinned cinnamon, or deconstructed across a cocoa-dusted plate the size of a hubcap.  It’s not been one of my favorites (too fattening, too soupy, the flavors too married), and I rarely order it when eating out. But then, June happened. Desserts acquired a food group status and climbed high on the antiquated pyramid.
     Recipes for tiramisu vary, though layering coffee or espresso-soaked ladyfingers with sweetened mascarpone and topping with chocolate are essential. Some incorporate raw egg into the cheese; I wouldn’t do that even on a dare. Some eschew alcohol and opt for rum flavoring in the “pick me up” brew, which seems unnecessarily puritanical.  Others, more traditional perhaps, instruct that one prepare first a zabaglione and also a pastry cream to add to the mascarpone before assembling. I’m exhausted just thinking about that.
     A straight-forward version, with no salmonella worries, lifted out of the ordinary through the use of homemade ladyfingers will do you proud and help lighten the atmosphere on any angst-wrought occasion.
     Recently I became acquainted with a thoughtful, accomplished woman who wields a wicked pack of Tarot cards, and I asked her to do a reading for me.  I know the cards themselves have no power, but if we allow ourselves to meditate upon the layering of images, esoteric and iconic, and what they call to our attention, they can provide snapshots into our lives.
     The final card in my reading was the eight of swords. A woman in a flowing robe, bound loosely and blindfolded, stands in a barren, watery landscape. Eight swords, plunged into the ground, partially fence her in, but the way ahead is clear. The sky is dark and foreboding, but in the distant background appears a castle on a hill.
     The meaning of course lies in the layers, in the depth of their interpretation. Much like a good tiramisu.

(The Queen of Swords, Visconti-Sforza Tarot)

      For a Halloween bash years ago, I fashioned a costume out of black and purple lace, sort of remnant shelf gypsy garb, and brought along my own deck of cards.  I had studied the history and symbolism of the tarot, finding the images beautiful and fascinating.  I could in those days provide a reading adequate for parlor games.
     While it was all in fun for my friend’s party, as I laid out the cards in the Celtic Cross for one guest, she asked, “Will I ever talk to my father again?”
     It seemed unkind to suggest she pick up the phone. As we worked through the cards, her story unfolded. Reaching out was an option. She had a say in the matter.   
     We do have options in life.  More often than not, we have a choice. And while some occurrences are truly beyond our control, dessert is not one of them.

Send me an email if you'd like the recipe for tiramisu and homemade lady fingers. This column appears in the the August 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:

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