The story of how I learned to make tiramisu starts with the first meeting I had with my cousin Luciana in Palermo, Sicily. Now, tiramisu is popular all over Italy, as well as all over the world, but what is now dessert has origins in Venice. An unknown chef created it at an obscure time in history. However, recipes began showing up around 1960. Designed as a “lift me up” breakfast dish, tiramisu contains Italian coffee, cream, eggs, a creamy mascarpone cheese and lady finger cookies. It has turned into one of the most popular Italian desserts around the world.

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My son Tony in the green polo shirt next to Luciana and my Sicilian family

Several years ago, I first met my cousin at a small convent-turned-hostel when I visited Sicily for the first time with my son. After locating our family members, we were invited and attended a traditional Sunday afternoon dinner in the hills above Montelepre, near Palermo. Luciana couldn’t join us at that dinner. However, her sister, Giovanna, insisted that she visit with my son and me later that evening.

I had promised to make dinner for a British couple working as religious tour translators, who were staying at our hostel. I had contacted Luciana to join us for some gelato afterwards. I won’t forget that exciting day, meeting all our cousins for the first time and enjoying an astonishing mid-day dinner in the mountain air. Later that night when we were about to enjoy our gelato with our British guests, Luciana arrived with a friend. Since our guests were translators, they happily translated our conversation with my newly found cousin and her friend. I learned a little about her life in Palermo and I asked her many questions about our family.

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Our British dinner guests and interpreters

At the end of our visit when we said our goodbyes, Luciana looked at me and said, “Next time you come to Sicily, you stay in my home, the home where my parents lived, and where your parents stayed when they visited my family when I was 8 years old.” I can’t quite explain just what that meant to me at that moment. There was a sense that I was amidst an extraordinary moment and I didn’t really understand why. At that moment, I did feel the inherent love that existed inside us as family members who were separated many years ago, by the migration of my grandfather to America.

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Photos I framed for Luciana as a Christmas gift, my parents in 1974 visiting Palermo below

The following year, a few days before my beach resort stay in Mondella, a delightful sea town just outside of Palermo, I did take up Luciana’s invitation to stay with her and her daughter, Alba. We visited with other family members and I met some of Alba and her son, Vincenzo’s friends. Luciana prepared for me a baked anelletti pasta dish, which is very popular in Palermo and generally reserved for holidays.

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Luciana with her student with the lead acting roll in Pinocchio

The little round circle anelletti pasta is to be baked ONLY, in the forno, or oven, with a ragu sauce. This hearty pasta dish contains beef, peas, tomato sauce and grated Parmesan, Romano and mozzarella cheeses. The simple flavors of basil, oregano, garlic and salt and pepper give it that Sicilian flare and the onions and chopped zucchini add additional flavor and body. This is topped off with bread crumbs (or bread dough) and good olive oil before it’s baked. It was the first time I had this dish and it was even more special since it was prepared by my cousin Luciana.

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Luciana serving anelletti pasta

One year, before I returned home from Sicily, I saw a Disney poster in Alba’s bedroom and I asked her if she liked to watch Disney movies when she was a child. She said she loved them and had visited Disneyland in Paris. After several years of visiting Luciana and her children I wanted to host them in my Sarasota home. I wanted to return the hospitality her parents had given my parents so many years ago. Being a single mother, I surmised it would be financially difficult for Luciana to travel with her children. As a Christmas present to myself, I sprung for their travel arrangements, looking forward to a Christmas with “family.” Anticipating Luciana might resist, at the airport I instructed Vincenzo to tell his mother that this has been decided and insist that she must go along with my plan.

For years when I lived in Michigan with my family, I had hosted holiday dinners in my home. After many years of living alone in Sarasota, I longed for the opportunity to have family with me during the holidays.  What better way to accomplish this than sharing my life with my Sicilian cousins.

That year I planned all kinds of activities for their stay. They enjoyed trips to the Ringling and the Dali museums, The Nutcracker ballet, the children’s circus, a play at the Florida Studio Theater and, of course, boating and the beach. I even arranged for them a four-night stay at Disney World to visit all the parks (I skipped all but one of those days). We had an amazing visit and my “gift” to myself was truly appreciated by my cousins. Alba, later would write to tell me how special it was to again spend every day, eating each meal together (albeit the horrible food at the Disney parks) and spending time together.

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A visit to the Ringling Circus Museum and a boat ride to the Ca’ d’Zan at the Ringling

We cooked a great deal in my apartment. On Christmas Eve day, Luciana taught me on how to prepare tiramisu from the ingredients we gathered from the Italian market. I watched her carefully prepare the coffee, the mascarpone cheese and the whipped cream. She topped the layers with coco and dark chocolate. We carefully placed it in the refrigerator to be consumed for Christmas dinner.

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The whipped cream is ready for the tiramisu

We then took off for Christmas Eve dinner and a midnight church service at one of Sarasota’s non-denominated congregations where an awesome rock band performs. Coming from Italy, a country where 98% of the people are Roman Catholic, my cousins were blown away with excitement during the services. Never had Luciano, Alba or Vincenzo been to such a worship before. With the lights turned off, holding lit candles and singing songs with the faithful worshipers, we knew we were making a most memorable experience.

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Lots of cooking that Christmas season with Luciana and Alba

The next day at Christmas dinner, I was excited to try our dessert. When the time came, it was the best I have ever had. So many times, people tell me at my events and dinners where I serve tiramisu, “It’s the best I’ve ever had” or “I normally don’t like tiramisu, but yours isn’t too sweet.” I tell them it’s not my recipe; it’s Luciana’s. The reason is her tiramisu lacks the overuse of sugar added to the whipped cream and mascarpone cheese. The lady finger cookies are already coated on one side with sugar, so to add more just makes the dessert too sweet and rich. Instead, you enjoy the taste of coffee, vanilla, the mascarpone and the light and delightful whipped cream.

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Luciana’s Christmas tiramisu

A few years later, a great sadness overtook my Sicilian family with the loss of my beloved Luciana to an illness. In such a short time, Luciana and I created so many wonderful memories for ourselves and Alba and Vincenzo. So, when people enjoy the tiramisu I serve, it warms my heart to know that she still lives inside me, forever. My meeting with Luciana taught me never to hold back, experience life as best as you can. What I thought was a gift to myself one Christmas turned into a life gift for me, to experience Luciana every time I serve tiramisu. I always say, “Food is love.”  The lesson of making tiramisu with Luciana was the gift of love I received which I will always cherish.

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In loving memory, Luciana Palermo October 17, 1966 – April 27, 2017