Ladyfingers, also seen as lady fingers, are small delicate sponge cakes which are shaped like fat fingers. Although ladyfingers can be eaten on their own, they are usually used as a recipe component; they can be soaked in syrup, layered with cream, or decorated with piped frostings and fresh fruit. Many grocers carry packages of ladyfingers, and they can also be found at some bakeries; cooks can also make them at home, if desired. In the United States, ladyfingers are particularly associated with the American South, and several bakeries there specialize in the mass production of these cakes.
These small cakes are almost like cookies, with a classically dry, crumbly texture. Depending on the region of the world in which one discusses them, they may also be called boudoir, sponge, savoy, or Naples biscuits, and Italians call them savoiardi. Ladyfingers typically have a very mild flavor, although they can be made fancier with the addition of ingredients like lemon, cinnamon, cardamom, or orange peel. Their dryness makes them extremely absorbent, which is useful in the construction of desserts.
The first ladyfingers appear to have emerged in the 11th century House of Savoy, and by the 15th century they were a common royal treat in France and other parts of Europe. In Savoy, ladyfingers were given as gifts to visitors, symbolizing the culinary history of the region. Descendants of this royal house also brought ladyfingers with them as they married and traveled in other parts of the world, and in the 18th century ladyfingers started appearing in lyric poems.
The dough for ladyfingers is relatively simple, but it needs to be handled with care to keep the cakes fluffy. Mishandling can cause the dough to sag or collapse, which can make the cakes dense and chewy rather than light and airy. When cooks use a ladyfinger pan, a special pan specially designed for cooking these cakes, the dough is more like a batter, and it can be more forgiving. Cooks who pipe individual cakes out onto a pan use a thicker dough so that the cakes will not spread out as they cook.
Rather than fussing with dough, some cooks prefer to purchase pre-made ladyfingers for desserts like tiramisu which call for the cakes. These can be a bit drier and less delicate than home-made versions, although after being soaked in syrup and covered in other ingredients, it can be hard for many consumers to tell the difference.