I was in an Italian mood tonight. I made a fresh batch of Bolognese ragu as the freezer was bare (it’s almost unknown for my freezer not to contain at least one portion of homemade ragu) and I then decided to make myself some zabaione for dessert. Well, it is Sunday and Sunday deserves dessert! It’s a very long time since I’ve made zabaione (sometimes called zabaglione) but back in the late 70s when I was first married, it was a dinner party staple. It was a very fashionable thing to make at the time, but looking back I think, What madness! Why would anyone want to prepare lots of food for a dinner party and when it came to dessert stand in front of a hot cooker vigorously beating a custard over heat for about 20 minutes while guests continued chatting at the table. The answer is that it’s so delicious and really at its best served immediately while warm. (And the custard separates quickly, so will have spoiled if you make it earlier.) However, I did sometimes divert from the classic: I’d whip cream and fold it into cold zabione for a more mousse-like dessert; and the addition of some whipped egg white would lighten it, if you prefer. At other times I made ice cream with it. I remember arriving in Florence in the late 70s on holiday and buying my first zabaione ice cream from a famous gelateria there. It was a little touch of heaven: completely divine.
It was a little earlier than this that I tasted zabaione for the first time. I was a young editorial assistant at a major book publishers in London and a small group of us went to one of the other girl’s flat for supper one evening. I remember she had avocado to begin and at that time they were quite rare and so it seemed very sophisticated. But when the zabaione came – well, what amazing sophistication and how incredibly delicious! And I vowed I had to learn to make it.
Like many classic recipes, zabaione is clouded in some controversy as to its origin. Antonio Carluccio in his Italia: The Recipes and Customs of the Regions states that it’s a classic Piedmontese recipe, named after the patron saint of patissiers, San Giovanni di Baglion. However, in Two Greedy Italians, written with Gennaro Contaldo, he says that its origin is disputed to be between Florence, Piedmont or Sicily. A Google search came up with the suggestion that its invention has been credited to a 16th century monk from Turin (in Piedmont!) but others believe it comes from Venice or the Medici family in Florence. Claudia Roden credits it to Piedmont in The Food of Italy. So who knows, but it seems that Piedmont comes out as the most likely place of origin and even Turin, which is on my New Bucket List Holiday Destinations for this year and I’m hoping to get to in August.
Zabaione is basically a mixture of egg yolks, sugar and sweet Marsala wine. It is sometimes served as a drink and thought to be a good pick-you-up and healing. Certainly the quantity of wine you put in will either add or diminish the pick-you-up effect, but personally I definitely like to know the Marsala is in there!
I’ve only served zabaione ‘straight’ before: i.e. no additions. But a few books suggested that fruit could be added to I decided to crush a few raspberries, sprinkle over a little sugar and add a dash of cassis, just before cooking the custard.
The custard needs to be carefully cooked in a bain marie or in a bowl over simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water or the egg will cook too quickly and spoil the custard. I made enough for two and the generally accepted (if open to debate) ratios are: 1 egg yolk – 1 tablespoon sugar – 2 tablespoon Marsala. I thus did 2:2:4.
Have a pan of hot water simmering. Beat the egg, sugar and wine together and then place on top of the simmering pan and whisk. And whisk. And whisk. It actually only took me about 10 minutes to gain the right consistency but if you’re making more – for 4 or 6 people – then a larger amount of custard will inevitably take longer. At first the mixture is very runny and quite brown from the Marsala. As you whisk over the heat, the custard thickens and lightens in both texture and colour. The volume gets bigger and bigger until finally you have a wonderfully light, pale foam. Then it needs to be poured or spooned straight into a serving glass. I’d already prepared the glasses with a little of the crushed raspberries at the bottom.
I crushed an amaretto biscuit and had some lingue di gatto (cats’ tongues) that I’d bought in Carluccio’s this morning, which are traditionally served with zabaione, or sometimes sponge fingers.
I carefully spooned the hot custard over the raspberries then sprinkled over some of the crushed amaretto. I added a lingue di gatto and served two more on the side and it’s lovely to dip them in the warm custard. It was a gorgeous dessert. The raspberries with their slightly sharp bite cut nicely through the rich sweetness of the zabaione and they made a wonderful partnership.
Making the zabaione had all been a lot easier than I recalled and I am now inspired to make ice cream with it again – so watch this space! After all that Italian input through the meal I couldn’t finish without making myself an espresso.
I try not to drink too many coffees in a day but there’s something almost essential to me about having an espresso after a good – especially Italian meal – so that’s what I did. I collect espresso cups from different places I visit and tonight chose one from Tazza d’Oro in Rome, said to be one of the best coffeehouses in the world. Though maybe if I get to Turin in August, I’ll be able to buy one from there to use for coffee after zabaione!