Today is a somewhat different post than the last few since today I am featuring a living, breathing composer friend of mine, Matthew Kennedy.
He has been composing a collection of “Miniatures for One,” short pieces for solo instrumentalists and their favorite desserts. And my favorite dessert is Tiramisu.
The dynamic of working with a living composer friend is completely different than learning a piece of music by a composer who is long dead or a stranger. And from Matthew’s side, writing for a specific player, especially when it involves someone’s favorite dessert, is equally personal. He thought about the players - what they do, who they are as players, and what their relationship to the dessert is.
I got my miniature and could look it over – make articulation suggestions and ask questions. What would you give to be able to ask Bach what he meant with the little squiggly lines at the end of the Grave in the A minor Sonata? With living composer friends, you can! (There are many ways in which you can commission works from composers. Want to know more? Let’s talk!)
After I received my piece, Matthew told me that what stuck out to him is my deep love for Tiramisu. And he is right. I like chocolate, I like cake, I like ice cream, but I love Tiramisu. What is not to love about coffee, chocolate, creamy mascarpone custard, and a delicate spongey biscuit? Leave it to the Italians to come up with one of the most popular desserts of all time, one that is“a sweet torture for all those who declare themselves on a diet and who, punctually, postpone the fast until the following Monday, whenever the notorious dessert is named.”
Matthew and I met 4 years ago at Fresh Inc. Music Festival: I was on faculty there and he was one of our outstanding participants. Fresh Inc is a 2-week summer intensive that brings together instrumentalists and composers in emerging artist training that involves the commissioning and premiering of new chamber music and a rigorous entrepreneurship curriculum. I premiered one of his pieces “Textures and Lines” then and this is the picture to prove it:
I now have had the great joy of being part of the "Miniatures for One" project which is already in the second round of commissions – a total of 100 miniatures. Here is the YouTube premiere (thank you, COVID-19…) of Matthew Kennedy’s “Miniatures for One: XXXIV Wilmette, IL."
The legend of Tiramisu is the story of a dessert associated with the fall of one of the most famous and wealthiest families in Western History: the Medici. The family of de Medici married into the royal houses of Europe, supplied four popes, and ruled Florence and later surrounding Tuscany for 3 centuries, from the Renaissance to the Rococo. But who were the Medici? To amass such power, one must surely have some old name, probably attached to land and titles. Or a really rich, spinster aunt.
They did not start out as a noble or even wealthy house. Originally Tuscan peasants, the Medicis moved to Florence in the 14th century when commercial opportunities in trade arose. As an economic downturn forced many of the wealthiest Florentine families into bankruptcy, the Medici rose to prominence and founded a bank that would have branches all over Europe and even handled finances for the Roman Catholic curia. But they did not just sit on their money and put it in their bank vaults.
The Medici family was one of the most well-known and generous arts patrons in the history of Western culture. They patronized some of the most famous artists and scientists of all time:
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Galileo (though they later killed him too…), Botticelli, Barbara Strozzi, Francesca and Giulio Caccini, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel and countless more. The love for the arts was so strong throughout the extended family as is evidenced with one of their most influential members: Pope Leo X. A prolific spender of personal and Vatican funds on the arts, Leo X’s preoccupation with the arts resulted in the accelerated building of St Peter’s Basilica and transformed Rome into the cultural center of Europe. With all of this art-ing, he overlooked the rise of a certain insurgent monk by the name of Martin Luther whose bible translation would spur on the Reformation and the splitting of the church into Catholic and Protestant. I guess we have Leo X to thank for Johann Sebastian Bach…
Several generations later, (in the mid-18th century), Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany was the second to last of the male Medici line.
Though a generous arts patron himself, Cosimo III differed from many of his Medici predecessors’ Humanist values: his reign was shaped by religious zealotry which included everything from an increased segregation between Christians and Jews, the prohibition of May Day dances to the regulation of prostitution. One day the Grand Duke Cosimo III went to Siena on official state business where he was greeted with a special delicacy the local bakers had concocted: the zuppa del duca – or the Duke’s soup. Layers of rich custard, coffee-soaked sponge cake or biscuits, and a little cocoa.
Legend has it that Cosimo III loved the Sienese dessert so much that he took the recipe with him to Florence and where it became a staple in his household menu. What Cosimo III could not have anticipated is that his beloved zuppa del duca would also become a favorite refreshment in certain pleasure establishments due to its rich and invigorating combination of caffeine, sugar, and fats. It was used as a pick me up or a “Tira me su.” How Cosimo III would have felt about his favorite dessert’s locale of renaissance can only be speculated, though I doubt he would have continued his own enthusiastic consumption.
Of course credit for the modern recipe of the Tiramisù should go to a restaurant "Le Beccherie" in Treviso for introducing this marvelous dessert to the world.
Enough history for a moment and let's get to making this delectable dessert!
There is one thing you should know though: the original recipe requires uncooked egg yolks, so if you are going to make it with the eggs, please make sure to use really fresh, well-refrigerated eggs. There is nothing quite like food poisoning to ruin a perfectly good weekend... I am also offering a work around if you are uncomfy with consuming raw eggs.
8x8 inch baking pan or 9'' round cake pan
For the creamy, cream:
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of heavy cream
8 ounces (~250 grams) of mascarpone
For the assembly:
1 1/2 cups of good, strong, fresh espresso
2 tbsp of marsala wine (or rum if you don't have marsala)
2 tbsp of unsweetened cocoa
1 generous package (200 gr/7 ounces) of ladyfingers (also go by the name of savoiardi)
optional bittersweet chocolate for shaving
Combine espresso and marsala and set aside
With your electric mixer, beat egg yolks and 1/4 cup of sugar until pale yellow and tripled in volume. If you are uncomfortable eating them raw, you can whip them over a water bath of boiling water to help cook the eggs a little halfway through for a minute. Please make sure that you are using a bowl that is heat-resistant.
In a separate bowl, and not over hot water, beat the heavy cream with the remaining sugar until you have soft peaks. Gradually add in the mascarpone cream until you have a spreadable cream that can hold medium/firm peaks.
Fold in the mascarpone mixture into the eggs, being careful not to whip lest you deflate the eggs.
Sift 1 tbsp of the cocoa in the bottom of the baking dish of choice
Quickly dip each ladyfinger in the espresso mixture and lay down flat rounded side up in the dish. These biscuits are very delicate and will disintegrate if you soak them for too long. See my homemade version below.
Cover the entire bottom of the dish with these sponges, breaking them as needed to fill in large gaps. Spread half the mascarpone mixture, then repeat the ladyfingers and mascarpone process.
Sift the remaining tablespoon of cocoa on top and finish with a few shavings of bittersweet chocolate (if desired).
Looking for a way to be more like the Medici? Become an arts patron today (and no, you do not need a really rich spinster aunt to do so)! Purchase a copy of Matthew’s Miniatures for One because all proceeds are being donated to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund to support artists with emergency grants during COVID-19.
 The second volume is dedicated to beverages.
 Arianna Falchi, “La zuppa del duca,” Siena news, May 10 2016, https://www.sienanews.it/cultura/la-zuppa-del-duca-la-vera-storia-del-tiramisu/.
 For more information see: www.freshincfestival.com
 John G. Gallagher, “Leo X: Pope,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-X, accessed 06/01/2020.
 "Cosimo III," Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cosimo-III, accessed 06/01/2020.