This Foamy Egg Custard is an Italian Dessert Classic
Looking for a festive dessert for a special occasion? Like Valentine’s Day, maybe? Something sweet but light — and different?
How about Zabaglione? Pronounced Zah-bahl-YOH-nay, it can also be spelled Zabaione (same pronunciation). In France they call it Sabayon.
Once a staple of Italian restaurants, this foamy egg custard classic has become less popular in recent years. I don’t know why — it’s a delectable dessert. And a flexible one! You can serve it freshly made and warm, or prepare it ahead of time and serve chilled.
Add some fresh berries and mama mia! You’ll be a star.
To make Zabaglione, you beat egg yolks with sugar, then add Marsala wine while whipping the mixture over heat until it’s light and frothy. It’s an easy recipe, but you do have to be careful with the heat. You want to warm the mixture to only about 145 - 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Get it too warm and you risk scrambling the eggs. More on this in the Notes.
This recipe serves 4 (6 if you stretch it with more berries), and takes about 10 minutes to prepare. It’s best served immediately, but can be refrigerated and served an hour or more later (see Notes).
- 4 egg yolks (consider using pasteurized eggs; see Notes)
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ cup sweet Marsala wine (see Notes)
- 2 cups berries, cleaned and cut into pieces if necessary (more if you prefer; quartered strawberries or whole blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries are particularly nice; I use a mix of berries rather than just one variety)
Although you can whip the egg mixture in a pan over direct heat, most of us find it easier to use a double boiler setup because there’s less risk of overheating the egg yolks. If you don’t have a double boiler, I suggest using a sauce pan to heat the water, and then mix the egg yolks in a metal or heatproof glass bowl that fits over the sauce pan, but that is large enough so the bottom of the bowl won’t touch the water in the pan.
- Wash berries. If using strawberries, hull (cut off the leafy cap) and cut into halves or quarters.
- Add about an inch of water to a saucepan or bottom of a double boiler, and bring to boil on stovetop. Please note: The level of water should be kept low enough that it never touches the bottom of the mixing bowl or double boiler top.
- While the water is heating, add egg yolks and sugar to a medium-size bowl (use metal or heatproof glass or ceramic if you’ll be using it as a “double boiler” top). Beat with an electric hand mixer (or a large whisk if you don’t have a portable mixer) until pale and creamy. Slowly add Marsala and beat until it’s just incorporated into the mixture.
- By now the water should be boiling. Reduce to the barest simmer. Put the mixing bowl on top of the saucepan (making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch water); or if using double boiler, use a rubber spatula to scoop the mixture into the top part of the double boiler, and then place it over the bottom part (making sure it doesn’t touch water).
- Using an electric hand mixer (or wire whisk) beat the mixture until it’s frothy and thickened considerably. It should achieve the texture of light cream, and triple in volume. From time to time, use a rubber spatula to scrap down the sides of the bowl.
- When the mixture is at least 145 degrees, but no more than 165, it’s ready. (Zabaglione will thicken a bit more at the higher temperature, which you may want.) It will take 5 to 10 minutes for the mixture to reach the correct temperature range. Use an instant-read thermometer to check. If you don’t have one of these, you can judge by touch; the mixture should be quite warm to your finger, but not hot. If the mixture gets too hot, it risks curdling and turning into scrambled eggs.
- Remove from heat. Add berries to serving dish (a large wine or cocktail glass is nice), spoon in Zabaglione, and add more berries as topping (although they’ll sink into the mix after a minute).
- If you want to prepare this dish ahead, refrigerate the serving dishes after you complete step seven. Serve within an hour or two (see Notes for more on this).
- I find plain berries plenty sweet. But if you want them sweeter still, toss gently with a tablespoon of sugar (or to taste) an hour before serving and allow to macerate. Optional: you can also add a teaspoon or two of fresh lemon juice to sharpen their flavor.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? I don’t know about you, but I find it’s impossible to make a dish like Zabaglione without tasting it as I’m preparing it!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they have usually a red “P” stamped on them.
- It’s important to control the temperature of the egg mixture while cooking. Get it too hot, and the egg yolks will scramble. But what if you don’t get the Zabaglione hot enough? It’s still quite edible (I’ve seen versions of the dish where the eggs aren’t cooked at all), but the Zabaglione will be thin and much less ethereal.
- If it looks like the temperature of the eggs is rising too quickly as you’re beating them in steps 5 & 6, remove bowl from the heat source and increase the tempo of your mixing to cool the Zabaglione. You can also place the bowl (briefly) in a larger bowl filled with ice and water to quickly bring the temperature down.
- I much prefer my Zabaglione warm, so I serve it straight from the stove. But preparing it does take you away from the table for about 10 minutes. So why not invite your guests into the kitchen to chat while you’re making it? They can also amuse themselves by clearing the table.
- If you want to chill the Zabaglione, it retains pretty good texture for an hour or two, particularly if you’ve made it thicker by cooking it to 165 degrees. So you can prepare it right before dinner, and it will still look nice when it’s time for dessert (add the berry garnish to the top of the Zabaglione right before serving).
- If preparing ahead, it’s best to chill the Zabaglione quickly. Simply fill a large bowl with ice and water, put the mixing bowl in this, and beat for a couple of minutes until the mixture cools. Then add the Zabaglione to serving dishes.
- If you want to serve it the next day, I recommend adding whipped egg whites or cream to the mixture. (You can use the egg whites you’ll have left over from making the Zabaglione.) Whip 2 egg whites (or all 4 if you wish) until stiff, then fold into the cooked Zabaglione. Or whip ¾ cup heavy cream with a teaspoon of sugar until you have whipped cream, and then fold into cooked Zabaglione.
- Some versions of Zabaglione use white or red wine rather than Marsala. But Marsala is traditional.
- Marsala is a fortified wine made in the Sicilian town of Marsala. It’s fortified (additional alcohol is added) in order to help preserve it. Marsala usually contains 18% - 20% alcohol (36 - 40 proof).
- Because it’s higher proof than most wines, an opened bottle of Marsala won’t oxidize and lose flavor and aroma immediately. But it will still do so over time. So unless you plan to finish a bottle within a month or so of opening, I suggest you store it in the refrigerator.
- Marsala usually comes in 3 degrees of sweetness: oro (secco, or dry); ambra (semisecco, or medium-dry); and rubino (sweet). For this dish, sweet Marsala is preferable. But the other varieties will work, too — and the Zabaglione will still be delicious.
- One of the pleasures of eating warm Zabaglione is that you get to inhale the enticing aroma of the Marsala. You’ll still notice some of the aroma with chilled Zabaglione, but the sensation is much diminished.
- What to do with the leftover egg whites (if you don’t use them to make Zabaglione you want to serve the next day)? How about Homemade Meringues? You can freeze the egg whites, then make the meringues later for another special occasion dessert.
Bring Back Zabaglione!
Zabaglione used to be ubiquitous in US Italian restaurants. It was often prepared by the waiter tableside using a small burner for warming the mixture in a round copper bowl — and it was always fun to watch it being prepared. Today, Tiramisu seems to have replaced Zabaglione as the universally available dessert on Italian menus. A good dish, but what happened to Zabaglione?
“Mmmmm,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she tasted the Zabaglione I prepared for this post, her eyes half-closed with pleasure. “I don’t remember when we last had this. Why don’t you make it more often?”
Why not indeed?
I wonder where I can get a small burner and a copper bowl.
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