The cappuccino years

Simon Hopkinson serves up coffee-flavoured treats more tempting than any 'double skinny latte with wings'
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Almost every single high street up and down the land seems to be sporting many more coffee shops than there are butchers, bakers, greengrocers and mongers of both fish and iron

Almost every single high street up and down the land seems to be sporting many more coffee shops than there are butchers, bakers, greengrocers and mongers of both fish and iron (there exists, curiously enough, a fine candle-maker at the bottom of my street; as to whether they make sticks to go with them, I am unsure). So it seems curious to me that this madness – for that is what it most surely is – hasn't inspired all manner of delicious coffee desserts.

The one exception here, of course, is the ubiquitous tiramisu. The very first one that I remember eating in the UK was at Le Caprice, around about the early to mid-Eighties. The standard London Italian of the time, after all, was quite content to continue serving up oranges in caramel, zuppa inglese, crème caramel, the occasional zabaglione and – it must be said – a bought-in cheesecake of such consistent quality (very light, very cheesy and utterly delicious) that were they to have made their own, it would surely have disappointed.

With great fondness, I now look upon the tiramisu of Le Caprice as a landmark dish, heralding the decision of the restaurant's then owners, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, to embark upon a relentless research of the best of everywhere and everything. However – and this was their genius – at the same time they also took into account that although there were folk out there who had lots of dosh, many did not. Elegant, interesting, carefully cooked and tasty food, affordable by all.

Coffee, sponge, cream cheese (mascarpone) egg yolks and a bit of booze. A mere trifle – in all senses of the word. This intriguing pudding was, I imagine, thoroughly tried and tested by everyone from "front of house" to "pot wash". An all-pleasing, all-time winner, time for it to make its mark upon the menu. Chef Charles Fontaine's famous, original and (now) legendary salmon fishcake (available both at Le Caprice and now the Quality Chop House, London) was a further example of this new understanding of both frugal and fashionable all at once. The recent common or garden serving of fishcakes in restaurants up and down the country started at Le Caprice, be assured.

Sadly, however, countless versions of tiramisu that I have had the misfortune to eat recently (cowboy copies such as those now mass-produced for the dessert menu of a pizza chain or plastic pots of the stuff from the chilled shelves of your local deli) have come worryingly close to mirroring the fate that befell the crème caramel of the Seventies. There do, however, exist some truly gorgeous ones to be found, if you care to look or, naturally, if you were to make your own at home.

Particularly renowned is the tiramisu made by one Francesco Zanchetta, longstanding and astonishingly good-looking chef of the Italian restaurant Riva in Barnes, west London. Francesco has been making his tiramisu in exactly the same way, in his impossibly compact cucina, ever since the emphatically chic Andrea Riva first opened his eponymous establishment almost 11 years ago. Odd though it may be, the only other tiramisu that has ever come anywhere near to the quality of Francesco's confection is one that I ate in an Italian restaurant in Paris, at the beginning of this year.

I have told Riva that he should go to this place (L'Osteria, 10 rue de Sevigne) and take chef with him. I only made this suggestion to him because the style and ethos behind the place is so uncannily similar to Riva that I feel sure it could only bring a smile to their faces. But, of course, they will never go. The suggestion, however, of such an outing ever taking place is food for thought of the nicest kind. Perhaps I'll ask Francesco's wife for permission to take him there myself.

Francesco Zanchetta's tiramisu

Serves 6

Here is Francesco's recipe, almost to the letter.

For the creamy bit

250g mascarpone, at room temperature
3 egg yolks
1 egg
100g caster sugar
50ml white wine
50ml Marsala
2tbsp Amaretto
1tsp espresso coffee powder

For the biscuit bit

175g Italian savoiardi biscuits (or good quality sponge fingers)
3 full cups of espresso coffee (single espresso size)
half tbsp caster sugar
2tbsp Marsala
2 level tbsps of cocoa powder for dusting the surface -- and dust it nice and thick, say I

Tiramisu is best prepared the night before, so that the "cream" binds better with the biscuits. Make a zabaglione (or sabayon) by whisking the egg yolks and whole egg, white wine, Marsala and Amaretto in a stainless-steel bowl suspended over a pot of simmering water, kept ticking over on a low heat. Continue whisking in this fashion until the mixture starts to become very thick. Once it is firm and fluffy, remove the bowl from the pan but continue whisking regardless for a few more minutes. Now add the sugar, which should melt very quickly, thus cooling the zabaglione before incorporating the mascarpone. Gently fold in the cheese with the espresso powder, and then finally beat everything together fast for a minute or so, to both lighten and fully smooth the "cream". Keep the mixture cool.

For dipping the biscuits, first mix together the espresso coffees, the sugar and Marsala in a bowl large enough to soak the biscuits. Dip a couple of them in at a time until they are moist but not breaking up; this is best achieved by having the coffee good and hot, so it soaks in more quickly. The biscuits should be soft, rather than sodden. Cover the base of a large, shallow rectangular dish or Tupperware container with a layer of biscuits, all placed tightly together in the same direction. Pour over half of the "cream" and then add a second layer of biscuits, but this time place them at right angles to those underneath (this helps to prevent the tiramisu falling apart when serving). Cover with the remaining cream and dust thickly with cocoa powder. Cover and chill overnight in the fridge.

White coffee ice

Serves 6-8

There is a recipe for a "white coffee ice" in a cookery book called Great Australian Chefs (Bookman Press) offered up by the renowned and talented Sydney chef Tim Pak Poy. I have had the pleasure of eating the food he cooks on two separate occasions in the past, as a temporary resident in that sunny city, and distinctly remember enjoying both dinners hugely.

I reckon Tim Pak Poy is also very bright. And the very best cooks, as everyone knows, are also gifted with exceptional taste over all things pertinent to the enjoyment of time spent at the table (I hasten to add that this does not necessarily include interior decoration, menu grammar or basic spelling as part of the deal).

Regrettably, I cannot recall anything at all about the interior decoration of his restaurant (always a good sign), but I do think it might have been nice if Tim Pak Poy had given just the tiniest, merely the smallest nod, to some provenance of the recipe he gives in that Aussie chef book. One is only curious to know, don't you agree? If I had given the recipe myself, I feel absolutely sure I would have first admitted to being very excited indeed by finding such a perfect, sublime method for making this supreme ice. But then the recipe may well be unique to Tim Pak Poy. Who knows?

I have read something similar in Elizabeth David's final master work Harvest of the Cold Months (Michael Joseph, 1994). This is surely the best coffee ice-cream recipe in the world. Here follows my own slightly adapted version of both renditions.

600ml milk
200g high roast, best quality coffee beans
100g golden caster sugar
150g caster sugar
10 large egg yolks
200ml very cold double cream
200ml very cold whipping cream

Put the milk on to a low heat and tip in the coffee beans together with the 100g of golden caster sugar. Stir well and bring up to the boil. Allow the milk to seethe up over the coffee beans once, remove from the heat, give it a brief whisk and pour into a glass or stainless-steel bowl. Cover the bowl with a lid and suspend over a pan of hot water for one hour; which is not to say boiling -- the idea is to keep the milk hot to extract flavour from the coffee beans by sustained heat. What I do is decant tepid water and then top up with water boiled in a kettle; do this about every quarter of an hour (well worth it if you enjoy cooking, pointless if you can't be bothered).

Strain the coffee-flavoured milk through a fine sieve into a clean bowl and set aside. Discard the coffee beans. Briefly beat together the egg yolks and the 150g of (white) caster sugar until thick and yellow, then add the coffee-flavoured milk to them. Gently whisk together and then pour straight back into the used milk/coffee bean pan. Make a thinly textured custard with this mixture, being careful not to allow it to boil, but ensuring that it does, actually, lightly thicken. Pour into a chilled bowl and whisk in both the cold creams. Leave to cool completely and remove any visible surface froth with a spoon. Churn in an ice-cream machine in the usual way until very thick, and as smooth and ivory as a pot of window putty. Spoon into a lidded container and freeze until firm and ready to serve, about two hours or so.

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