More “Bitter Moments” with Caffè Corretto, Vermouth and Tiramisú

Caffè corretto, literally “corrected coffee,” is an Italian caffeinated alcoholic drink, typically a shot of espresso with a small amount of spirit – usually a sweet grappa, a spicy dark or light sambuca, a coffee liqueur such as Kahlua, or a smoky brandy. It either comes mixed or as a shot of liqueur alongside the shot of espresso. An ammazzacaffé (translated to “coffee killer”) is coffee with sugar, which is finished first, after which the grappa is poured into the coffee cup to rinse it and then taken as a shot. It is quite a potent pair and Italians love it! 

A memorable moment with caffè corretto was years ago when my daughter and I were taking a long walk in Athens, Greece. I spotted a sign that led me into a café for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, a shot of espresso with sambuca. Later, I found out that Italian etiquette dictates a cappuccino in the morning to start out the day, a caffè macchiato or two as an afternoon pick-me-up, and espresso after dinner. Oops! But still, it was a perfect treat…and I was in Greece! Did the Italian rules still apply?

Making tiramisú at my mom’s request for her birthday has become a tradition. It is always a great time as she supervises me to make sure that I make it correctly – very strong, the way she loves it. As I soak the Saviouardi (ladyfinger) cookies in a bowl of half espresso and half Kahlua, I make extra for me and sip on this great any-time-of-day caffè corretto. (My Tiramisù recipe is in the December issue of La Gazzetta.)

Italian vermouth is an aperitivo that blends fortified and aromatized red and white wines with different combinations of ingredients: citrus such as bergamot, a bitter such as wormwood, herbs such as coriander, flowers such as honeysuckle and spices such as star anise. A fortified wine is one that has distilled spirit added to it to increase its alcohol content. It was originally developed to preserve wine on long overseas journeys before the advent of refrigeration. I add sweet vermouth to the eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese to make the cream that is layered between the soaked ladyfingers in my tiramisú. It gives the creamy mascarpone cheese a subtly sweet taste with a hint of bitter. Sweet vermouth makes a very refreshing cocktail by simply mixing half sweet vermouth with half ginger ale or better, ginger beer, which has a bigger “punch.” Ginger beer is made by fermenting fresh ginger and sugar and has a stronger flavor, smell and spice than ginger ale which has a more syrupy and artificial taste. It makes a good drink while making tiramisú or better, for happy hour (called “aperitivo” in Italy) while socializing and relaxing before dinner.

My mom has a Ponce recipe, what most Italians call Punch (which, by the way, is not like American “punch,” as in a slew of alcohols mixed in a punch bowl). It is our family’s version of Limoncello. My dad and grandpa were the winemakers in our family; my mom was the distiller. While my mother’s recipe for Ponce calls for only lemon peels, my sister Beatrice acquired a recipe from her sister-in-law Anna that was handed down from her mother. In addition to lemon peels, it is also infused with whole coffee/espresso beans. This is a great way to “correct” your caffè or just as a shot. I was inspired to experiment with this recipe and added cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans to mine. You might be inspired as well!


This recipe is an adaptation of the original Ponce recipes.

1 L. Alcohol base (your choice) in a large jar; Infuse: Peel (no pith) of 2 lemons (I use a potato peeler); 30 g. Dark roast coffee or espresso beans (1.058 oz.); Any other spices/herbs you want to infuse. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, a week minimum, to infuse the alcohol with your desired flavorings. When ready, make the sugar syrup: 1 L. plus 8 oz. Water (5 ¼ C. Water); 2 ¼ C. Sugar; Heat in a saucepan until sugar melts. Keep warm. Caramelize sugar: 2 ¼ C. Sugar. In a heavy saucepan, over medium-high heat, pour a small amount of sugar until it melts, pour more sugar until all the sugar is melted. Lower the heat and allow the melted sugar to bubble but be careful not to burn the sugar. Stop when it turns a caramel color and is still a liquid. Do not let it crystallize and become hard. Stir the warm sugar syrup into the caramelized sugar. Cool. Remove the lemon peel, coffee beans and other spices from the alcohol. Add the alcohol to the sugar. Stir. Pour into liqueur bottles, store in the refrigerator or freezer and enjoy!