Zabaione is a classic sweet that you don’t encounter much any more on restaurant menus, let alone on home tables. That’s a shame, because it’s truly delicious and supremely versatile, equally suited to serve on its own as a sweet ending to an important meal or a warm and substantial beverage drunk as a quick pick-me-up or as a sauce for fresh fruit or cake. In the old days, it was thought to have restorative properties and was a favorite sweet treat for kids. The base recipe calls for only three ingredients that, at least in our house, are always on hand—eggs, sugar and Marsala wine—and can be whipped up (and, in this case, I use the term literally) in just a few minutes.
Zabaione belongs to the family of custard-like sauces that use egg yolks to thicken a liquid, such as crema pasticciera (virtually identical except for the use of Marsala instead of milk), hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise. All of these require some patience in adding the liquid to the egg yolks and, for the warm ones like zabione, care not to overheat and curdle the mixture. In this rendition, you whisk the egg, sugar and wine constantly until it becomes more of a mousse than a custard. You need a rather strong arm if you’re going to whisk by hand, but an electric whisk makes things almost effortless.
Serves 4-6 persons as a dessert or snack
- 6 egg yolks
- 6 spoonfuls of granulated sugar
- 250 ml (1 cup) of Marsala or other fortified or sweet wine (see Notes)
Begin by placing the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl. (Copper is best but stainless will do fine.) Place the bowl over a saucepan that have will have filled about halfway up with water, making a kind of double-boiler.
Now whisk the yolks together until they are completely amalgamated and the mixture has taken on a glossy, appearance and texture of a loose mayonnaise:
Now, turn on the flame, moderately high. Keep whisking as you add the Marsala, bit by bit, into the egg and sugar mixture.
Keep on whisking the mixture as the water in the saucepan comes to a boil. The heat of the steam rising from the water will begin to warm the mixture, and it will begin to thicken. As it thickens, it will begin to froth and grow in volume:
Keep on whisking while the mixture continues to heat up; it will thicken even more and gain even more volume. Your zabaione will be done when ribbons form as you whisk it. (NB: They disappeared too quickly to capture them in the photo!)
Now take the zabaione off heat and continue to whisk as it cools down a bit. You can cool things down faster if you place the bowl inside a large bowl filled halfway with ice.
Serve the zabaione still warm or at room temperature, preferably in a champagne or cocktail glass as pictured, accompanied if you like with an elegant cookie or rolled wafer, or topped with some berries or other fresh fruit. A sprinkling of nutmeg or powdered chocolate wouldn’t be amiss, either.
The other way to make zabaione—which I would dare say is the more traditional one—is to switch from whisk to a wooden spoon or spatula when you put the mixture on the heat. The result will be more like a custard than a foam, and you will need to be especially careful not to let the mixture boil or it will likely curdle. (If you have any fears, take the bowl off the heat, stirring vigorously, and add a few drops of Marsala to cool things off.) Made this way, the flavor of your zabaione will be very intense perhaps too intense to eat on its own. The custard form of zabaione is often used as an ingredient in a dessert recipe, a sauce for fresh fruit or cake, or mixed with whipped cream to soften its flavor a bit, in which case it is called crema zabaione. And, of course, zabaione makes a wonderful gelato, but I’ll leave that recipe for another post.
Although by far the most common in Italy, Marsala is not the only wine used to make zabaione. In fact, they say the original was made with Moscato d’Asti, a sweet Piedmontese wine made with muscat grapes. But any fortified or sweet wine (eg, Port or Madeira) that strikes your fancy will work, as would a spirit like rum. Some chefs even make a savory kind of zabaione with dry white wine as a kind of substitute for hollandaise to dress asparagus and other vegetables.
You will have noticed that this recipe calls for nearly raw eggs, so do be sure to use only the freshest, preferably local sourced, eggs. Even then, I doubt the the gentle cooking here is enough to kill any nasty pathogens, so you may want skip this dish if you have any concerns. (I haven’t tried using pasteurized egg liquids, but they might well work.)
Zabaione is generally considered a Piedmontese recipe, and according to the venerable Il cucchiaio d’argento it was invented by a Spanish lay brother and future saint, Pascal de Baylón, who also lent the dish its name. De Baylón apparently thought to add some sweet Cypriot wine when having some trouble whipping together his eggs and sugar. Others have it that that the original recipe (or at least the word) came from what it now Croatia, where it was called zavajun, which means “to beat”.
The common spelling of this dish in English, “zabaglione”, is rare in Italian language texts. The Zanichelli dictionary cites it as an erroneous variant, other dictionaries don’t even include that spelling as a variant at all. (The original, now archaic, Piedmontese spelling was apparently zabajone.) I have no idea how the ‘gl’ spelling became standard in the Anglophone world, but perhaps some reader can enlighten us…?