Steep some lady’s-fingers nice in Candy wine [ . . . ] And sponge my forehead,—so my love doth make me pine.
— John Keats, “The Cap and Bells; or, The Jealousies: a Faery Tale – Unfinished” (1820)
LADYFINGERS: remedy for the lovesick heart? Perhaps, if you’re a fairy king enamored of a mortal lady, as is the speaker in the lines above. Keats’s poem, which I found through an entry on ladyfingers at joyofbaking.com, is a halfhearted, satirical look at boozy court antics. It’s hardly his best writing, but why be critical? If for nothing else, I appreciate the poem for its mention of these delicate biscuits, which indeed have a soothing effect—especially when dipped in wine, syrup, or liqueur (though my recipe here is meant for green tea). At least, they’re soothing to eat; not necessarily to make from scratch. Ladyfingers, as with other génoise-type pastry, can be challenging. Still, they’re definitely worth their place in literature and in my baking repertoire.
A Little History
The creation date of the first ladyfinger recipe seems to be up for debate, though by all accounts they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Some sources point to the fifteenth century, others to the eleventh. Either way, they’re associated with the French court at Savoy. From there it’s not much of a leap to imagine these refined biscuits at Versailles, in the hands of that notorious lover of gourmandises, Marie Antoinette. Happily, this classic cross between a cookie and a cake survived the Revolution, becoming an indispensable part of the modern French culinary repertoire. Ladyfingers are the spongy sine qua non of luscious, mousse-filled charlottes, and they’ve no doubt been on the curriculum at Le Cordon Bleu since the legendary school’s inception. (It’s from Le Cordon Bleu At Home that my own recipe adaptation derives.) Jumping national borders, ladyfingers have been given pride of place in a more modern Italian confection: that cloud of dessert decadence known as tiramisu. And finally, because of their lack of chemical leavening, ladyfingers have become popular in Jewish homes during the Passover holiday season (although I hear that devout Jews prefer to call them by one of the other, less immodest names).
By Any Other Name
A ladyfinger, by whatever name, is still . . . delicious. Also known as Savoiardi, boudoir biscuits (more Romantic antics?), or biscuits à la cuillère (French for “spoon biscuits”), ladyfingers are light, crisp sponge cakes, shaped like . . . well, like fingers, though I’d quibble with the “lady” part; they are not slender enough for that, to my mind. Or else they’re the fingers of a lady who’s eaten too much salt, or who is suffering a bad bout of PMS. The kind of fingers my mother and I used to call “lard digits,” don’t ask me why. Another crazy family joke, and an unnecessary digression. Forgive me.
Before going further, I want to be clear about one thing: there is no shame in purchasing ladyfingers for your charlottes, trifles, tiramisu, or other composed desserts. I have used store-bought ladyfingers since the early 1990s, when I first began making traditionally flavored (coffee) tiramisu. My mother-in-law, a proper Frenchwoman with her own excellent recipe for chocolate charlotte, also uses commercial biscuits. If you’re serving a dessert to guests, I promise you that (unless they’re the worst, snottiest kind of “foodie,” and then why would you want to feed them at your house?) they will not care one bit if you use store-bought fingers or make your own, so long as the final dessert is light, creamy, sweet, and steeped in spirits.
So, why bother?
Well, making them from scratch feels like a rite of passage, for one thing. It’s also good practice for using a pastry bag, though that can be a bit humbling. (I realized that despite thinking of myself as a fairly accomplished baker, my bag skills . . . kinda suck. Maybe not horribly, totally, completely, but still: however did my ladyfingers end up with so many air bubbles and pointy tails?!)
Another reason to make your own ladyfingers is that when you buy from the store, you have no choice of flavors. There is only one: plain vanilla. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But sometimes, you really want to do something different. Making your own ladyfingers allows you to experiment in ways that go beyond just tinkering with dessert fillings. Whole worlds of flavor combinations open up once you do this.
Riffing on flavor is how I ended up with this recipe—well, plus the extra push I got from the Daring Bakers group. I developed my next post, Fresh Ginger Green Tea-ramisu, in response to their February 2010 challenge, and working on that is what led me to give matcha a try in these ladyfingers. It was a natural leap for me. Tiramisu is fabulous, and I am a big fan of coffee as a flavoring for sweets (recall last month’s Nanaimo Bars), but I wanted to experiment more, and I’m also a tea lover. You can find quite a few tea-based recipes in my collection, such as Blue Grey Chocolate Truffles and White Tea Rose Shortbread Cookies, plus others that haven’t made their appearance on the blog yet. Coffee, tea, and me, we all go way back.
Green tea is a favorite, and creating a version of ladyfingers to highlight that ingredient couldn’t be easier. These days, you don’t have to look farther than Whole Foods to find Japanese green tea powder, known as matcha. Sweet matcha is shade-grown green tea that has been ground into a fine powder and combined with milled cane sugar, sometimes also with roasted “genmai” brown rice. You can use it to make beverages such as lattes or lemonade, or else you can substitute it for a portion of granulated sugar in the baked treat of your choice. Matcha is also used to make green tea ice cream.
Of course, green tea powder is really green, so you want to be sure that wherever you use it, the color isn’t offensive. It didn’t take much matcha to color the whole batch of ladyfinger batter. I liked the results, but it’s also true that my piped biscuits looked less like fingers and more like plump caterpillars waiting to get baked off in the oven. Things tone down considerably in the end, though, as you can tell from the picture at the top of this post. I did nothing to manipulate color in these photographs, and the green went from quite saturated in the unbaked ladyfingers to barely detectable in the finished product. The green is still there, but you don’t see it until you reach the interior.
Makes for a lovely surprise, actually, and I guess in the end that’s probably the best reason for undertaking a kitchen project of any kind. So I hope you’ll give these a go, or, if green tea’s not your thing, then maybe you’ll be inspired to create other, fresh variations on the classic ladyfinger. You really can’t go wrong—but if you do (provided at least the flavor is good), just smother your “fingers” in cream, layer them in a trifle or tiramisu, and enjoy a cure for anything that ails you, even love.
Sweet Matcha Ladyfingers (Savoiardi)
Adapted, ever so slightly, from the ladyfinger recipe in Le Cordon Bleu At Home
East meets West with this ladyfinger recipe, a French classic infused with Japanese green tea. The health properties of green tea are by now well known. Matcha also plays a central role in the spiritual practice of Zen, as it is used in formal tea ceremonies. For this recipe, be sure to use sweet matcha, which is green tea powder blended with milled cane sugar. I swapped half the granulated sugar called for by Le Cordon Bleu with an equal amount of sweet matcha powder. You could certainly try more or less, but again: make sure you are using sweet matcha (Rishi is a good brand). The ladyfingers are lovely on their own, or they can be used instead of store-bought fingers in your favorite trifle, charlotte, or tiramisu recipe as a way to experiment with flavors.
Yield: approximately 24 large or 45 small (2-1/2 to 3-inch long) ladyfingers
3 eggs, separated
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons sweet matcha powder
3/4 cup cake flour (or see notes for making your own)
6 Tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, then preheat the oven to 350 F degrees. Lightly butter two baking sheets and line with parchment paper.
Beat egg whites using a handheld electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Mix together the granulated sugar and sweet matcha powder, then gradually add to the egg whites and continue beating until the whites become stiff again, glossy and smooth.
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks lightly with a fork and fold them into the whites, using a wooden spoon. Sift the flour over all, and fold gently until just incorporated. At this stage, you want to take great care and fold with a gentle motion. If folding is done too long, or too vigorously, then the batter will deflate, and you’ll end up with fat, very flat fingers of a sad consistency.
Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip (or you can use a Ziplock bag with a small corner snipped off), and fill the bag with batter. Pipe long, narrow strips of batter, leaving a 1-inch space between the ladyfingers. Sprinkle half the confectioner’s sugar over the ladyfingers and wait 5 minutes. The sugar will pearl or look wet and glisten. Now sprinkle on the remaining sugar. These two coats give the ladyfingers their characteristic thin, crisp crust. The Cordon Bleu recipe suggests that next you hold the parchment paper in place with your thumb, lift one side of the baking sheet, and gently tap it on the work surface to remove excess sprinkled sugar. I tried this, and frankly, nothing happened. It didn’t seem to hurt the recipe any.
Bake ladyfingers for 10 minutes, then rotate the sheets and bake for another 5 minutes or until the ladyfingers puff up, turn lightly golden brown, and are still soft. Allow them to cool slightly on the sheets (no more than 5 minutes). Remove ladyfingers from the baking sheet to cooling racks with a thin, flexible metal spatula. When completely cool, store ladyfingers in an airtight container until you are ready to use them. They should keep for about 2 to 3 weeks.
A Note on Making Your Own Cake Flour:
Don’t have cake flour handy? Forget the extra trip to the grocery store. To make 1 cup of cake flour, measure 1 cup of all-purpose flour, then remove 2 Tablespoons, which you won’t be using. Place the flour in a sifter and add 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift together at least three times to properly blend and aerate the flour. Ta-da! Cake flour.