The Greatest Story Ever to Appear in The Washington Post Turns 20 Today
Wherein an endearingly literal writer unwittingly creates the world's most terrible tiramisu.
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When you're a food writer, acquaintances often assume that you must absolutely slay all of your cooking projects—and that you pursue them at all. But I reckon that for every veritable Julia Child protegé who's making perfectly roasted duck breast every Tuesday night and has a wealth of fermentation projects in their apartment cabinets, there's someone like me—a dining-out enthusiast who can navigate an omelet just fine but is also susceptible to severely botching something as simple as gluten-free banana bread (true story, two weeks ago; an abject, crumbly failure).
This brings me to "A TALE OF A TERRIBLE TIRAMISU" a story which appeared in The Washington Post on July 8, 1998. (In case you were curious, nothing else interesting happened on this day except the birth of Jaden Smith. Happy birthday, Jaden.) "A TALE OF A TERRIBLE TIRAMISU" is a story that sticks with you, whether it's because of its relatability as an epic fail—before the term existed—or simply because of the poetry that takes place in the plot of this story, which is, indeed, about a tiramisu that sounds absolutely, undeniably terrible.
The story's author, Sindhu G. Hirani (now Sindhu Hirani Blume), recalls an incident back in 1993, a time when tiramisu was still basking in its final moments of chicness alongside other Wolfgang Puck-ified items like lobster ravioli and chocolate lava cake that now appear in bastardized forms on Cheesecake Factory menus. In the mid-80s, it had arrived in New York with a bang that puts the Cronut hysteria of 2013 to shame. By the end of the decade, it had become a downright commodity in America's other major food cities—a March 1989 New York Times story describes its takeover of San Francisco as an "obsession"—and in the early 90s, its suburban saturation was complete. This was the moment when the tiramisu bug reached Hirani, in Germantown, Maryland.
Hirani had little cooking experience, but upon receiving an Italian cookbook with a delectable-sounding tiramisu recipe, she couldn't resist the idea of whipping up a light-as-air, mascarpone-and-espresso confection for herself. Imagine the pride of giving the trendy dessert its final dusting of cocoa powder; slicing into its cloud-like texture; hoisting a square of the impossibly creamy thing onto a scalloped serving dish. How it would impress.
Two hours and four grocery store visits later, she had the ingredients. She whisked the eggs, combined the espresso with sugar and brandy, and began assembly. It was at this moment that she noticed that lining the dish evenly with ladyfingers was trickier than the instructions in the recipe might suggest. In fact, it seemed strange that she might be using ladyfingers in an Italian dessert at all. After all, in her native India, ladyfingers were more of a savory entrée kind of thing. But the text was there plain as day, and she finished off the rest of the steps and threw the whole thing in the refrigerator.
When she excitedly retrieved her creation the following morning, she flipped it onto a serving dish to find a "blob" that was, undoubtedly, "the most unattractive dessert [she] had ever seen." Regardless, she trudged on and iced the tiramisu with whipped cream, then dusted it with cocoa powder and shaved chocolate. Finally, she presented it to her parents for their tasting pleasure.
There was only one problem: They were utterly repulsed by it. Her father called it "disgusting" and even her ever-optimistic mother couldn't bear to take a bite. Puzzled, she went to work the next day and began to ask her colleagues about their own experiences with tiramisu. Where had she gone wrong? How had the recipe, followed to a T, ended up so... inedible?
Ladyfingers, known as savoiardi in Italian, are well-known in America as tubular, spongy biscuits. They're rarely consumed on their own, but more commonly found in various desserts that find them soaked in liqueurs or chocolate or fruit fillings, as their porous texture makes them perfect for absorbing sugary syrups.
Then, there are lady's fingers/ladies' fingers. Practically the same name, right? But in India, the Caribbean, and some other areas of the world, the term refers to that slimy, hairy, pointy little seed pod more commonly known in the States as okra.
But surely no one would see a recipe calling for sweet, cakey cookie things and possibly think that an Italian dessert would be made with okra, right? No one would douse whole okra in mascarpone and espresso and chocolate shavings?... Oh, poor Sindhu.
"Didn't you think, 'Why on Earth is a vegetable being used in a dessert?' " Sara asked, breathless from laughing.
"No," I said defiantly. "The recipe called for ladyfingers and I used ladyfingers."
Perhaps the best part of the story is that once you reach the bottom, and have fully absorbed the gravity of the author's misunderstanding, the recipe is reprinted in its entirety. It originally appeared in Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian, which was released the same year as the tiramisu mishap, and is impossible to read without visualizing Hirani dipping seven whole, fuzzy okra "one at a time into the reserved coffee mixture," then layering them with chocolate and a mascarpone cheese mixture. It's gross on an absolutely epic level.
I reached out to Sindhu Hirani Blume to see if she might have some reflections to share on the story, some resonating impressions from the famously terrible tiramisu, but I never received a response. Perhaps she's happier to leave it in the past.
Twenty years later, armed with a firmer understanding of the difference between ladyfingers and lady's fingers, we can only hope that it will turn out better for you, when you make it tonight, as we all should.