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Ladyfingers are one of the simplest recipes in a pastry chef's toolkit. The piped sponge cakes are used as the scaffolding for creamy, layered desserts—most famously tiramisu and charlotte russe, but ladyfingers are killer in summer trifles and banana pudding, too.
Ostensibly these slender biscuits were first served up in the court of Amadeus VI, Duke of Savoy—hence their Italian name, savoiardi. Their exact texture can range from slightly chewy to dry and crisp, depending on exactly how long they're in the oven and whether they're baked free-form or in special molds. Since I'm all about cutting back on specialty equipment, I favor the free-form style, and prefer a drier texture so the biscuits are more absorbent. If you prefer to enjoy them plain, or as the basis for a sandwich cookie, it's nice to bake them a little less so they can retain a bit of moisture and chew.
The recipe is super straightforward: beat up some egg whites and sugar, followed by some yolks and sugar in a second bowl, then fold those eggy foams together with some flour and perhaps a bit of lemon zest. Transfer to a pastry bag, pipe, bake, and you're done.
It's hard to imagine simplifying things even further, but that's kind of my job. I'm obsessive enough to want homemade ladyfingers for my baking projects, but lazy enough to feel annoyed at the thought of whipping the yolks and whites separately as if I were trapped in the eighteenth century. See, that whole "separate the whites and yolks" strategy is standard operating procedure from the days before mechanized mixers, as it made the eggs easier to whip by hand. A meringue's no big deal with a bit of time and a whisk, while foaming yolks simply requires a little more elbow grease.
But when whipping whole eggs, those fatty yolks can inhibit the whites from fluffing up as light as they should, making it difficult to achieve a high volume foam. By hand, anyway. Throw enough horsepower at a problem, and you can do whatever you want.
The one-bowl approach is faster, easier, and less messy, though technically not quite as voluminous as a two-bowl approach. That is, until you consider that the act of re-integrating the two foams itself will lead to volume loss—especially for beginners who've yet to master the delicate art of folding. All things considered, the benefits of whipping the yolks and whites separately is marginal at best, and vastly outweighed by the convenience of the whole-egg method. And it's not like this idea is unprecedented; commercial bakeries have been making this simplified style of ladyfingers for well over a century.
When whipping whole eggs, the trick is to warm them up to about 160°F over a water bath to dissolve the sugar and semi-coagulate the whites, helping them achieve better volume compared to whole eggs whipped cold (this is also true of Swiss meringue, which uses a similar method). From there, whip the warmed eggs on high until foamy and more than quadrupled in volume, and they are able to hold soft peaks like a meringue.
The exact timing will vary depending on the horsepower of your mixer, but it's only 5 minutes on my Kitchen Aid Pro 6. Once the eggs are foamy and thick, add a bit of lemon zest, all-purpose flour, and a touch of cornstarch, then gently fold to combine. Adding the cornstarch, a trick I picked up from a commercial ladyfingers recipe published in 1912, helps with moisture absorption, keeping the batter thick for better piping.
Transfer the batter to a large piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip. On two parchment lined half sheet pans, pipe the batter into approximately thirty 3- by 1-inch fingers, or whatever size and shape will suit your needs (just remember, the specific yield will depend on those dimensions).
Immediately before baking, generously dust the ladyfingers with powdered sugar. This is a vital step dating back to the oldest known recipes, one that helps the sponge cakes spread less and rise more.
Presumably this has to do with sugar absorbing excess moisture from the batter, but to my knowledge it isn't a well-studied phenomenon, and I've yet to see it addressed or explained. Regardless, the benefits are both obvious and dramatic, so don't leave those fingers bare!
Bake the sponge cakes until puffed and firm, about 12 minutes at 350°F. If your oven doesn't have perfectly even heat, it's best to bake the trays one at a time; don't worry, the wait won't cause any harm to the second tray. A little patience is far better than accidentally scorching half the ladyfingers, which will cause them to spread erratically (just don't dust the second tray with powdered sugar until it's ready to bake).
Once cooled, you can use the ladyfingers right away or stash them in an airtight container until needed. Because they're little more than edible sponges, it doesn't particularly matter if they're stale or fresh, and their high sugar/low moisture profile help ladyfingers last for weeks at cool room temperature.
So say good-bye to fussy recipes and store-bought sponge cakes, and hello to homemade ladyfingers that are fast, easy, and simple enough for beginners. And if you make a batch right now, who knows? Perhaps you'll be enjoying tiramisu this weekend.
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