Eggs. Sugar. Alcohol. These are the sole three ingredients needed for the creation of Italy’s most ethereally decadent dessert, the zabaglione. Known in French as ‘sabayon’, this pud consists of a light and airy custard, essentially whisked to within an inch of its life. It offers the velvety smooth richness you might associate with an English crème anglaise that is served alongside apple crumble, whilst the alcohol undercuts any overweening sugariness; instead, the eater is rewarded with a delightful fuzzy warmth courtesy of the booze. It is the perfect dessert for students: served warm off the stove, or chilled and folded into a little whipped cream, its elegance allows you to rustle it up for any special occasion, whilst the mere 15 minutes needed to prepare it, and the everyday ingredients it uses, make it a go-to option for a weeknight sweet fix.
As is the case with many reputable dishes, zabaglione is the protagonist of a story replete with historical anecdotes and rival claims to its origin. Probably the most interesting legend surrounding the creation of zabaglione comes from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, where a mercenary captain in 1471, Giovanni Baglioni, was camped outside the city walls of Reggio Emilia. His men were sent to plunder the local farmers for provisions, however, their haul was meagre – just eggs, sugar, and wine. Baglioni ordered his men to warm these ingredients together, thereby creating a delicious custard. It was subsequently named after Baglioni, whose name in the local dialect was ‘Zvàn Bajòun’. This name metamorphosed: zambajoun to zabajone to zabaglione.
The invention of zabaglione is also attributed to the region of Piedmont, where 16th Century Franciscan monks are said to have invented the custard dessert in order to help with the monks vigour! Tuscany also possesses a claim to the pudding’s creation: it was supposedly very popular in the court of Catherine de Medici during the 16th Century.
Whatever its origins, zabaglione became a dish of national importance in Italy, where, by the 19th Century, its popularity skyrocketed due to the production of a liqueur called Vov. Hailing from Padua, this alcoholic beverage became synonymous with ‘reinvigoration’. The custardy drink could supposedly strengthen sexual desire, return the sick to health, and give a great boost to energy levels. By the early 20th Century it was the official drink of the Italian military!
Regardless of origin, zabaglione is a delectable dessert for any occasion. The process is thus: you whisk some egg yolks with a little sugar until they are voluminous, whisk in some sweet wine (Marsala, Moscato d’Asti or Prosecco are my favourites), and then place the bowl this mixture is in over a bowl of barely simmering water, continuously whisking for eight minutes until nice and thick. There is a traditional ratio for the proportions of egg, sugar, and wine: 1:1:1. This method of preparation is achieved by using the eggshell as a measure. Whilst this works, I prefer recipes which call for a little more booze – you want the flavour of the alcohol to be obviously present in a dish relying on so few ingredients.
Speaking of alcohol, please do not feel restricted to sweet wine. The great thing about zabaglione is its versatility. Whilst part of the dessert’s charm is its primrose hue, red wine may be substituted for a more savoury, tannic pud. In that case, anything rich and fruity would work (a Californian zinfandel or a cotes-du-rhône would be perfect). That said, use whatever liquor you have to hand! A zabaglione made with rum, for instance, would be delicious served with a little chopped pineapple. Tequila would work for an explosive dessert, especially if you add a good amount of lime zest to the mixture. Last summer, I made a sherry-based version, which was yummy served warm over ripe figs. My final suggestion would be a beer-based zabaglione – the dessert would have a malty finish and the carbonation of the beer would make the mixture doubly light!
Serve zabaglione as you wish – it’s wonderful served on its own, dreamy mouthful after dreamy mouthful, however some shop-bought biscuits can provide a little welcome textural contrast. If you eat it warm, you don’t have to do anything more to it once it’s thick, however if you wish to serve it chilled, I would advise adding the mixture to a small carton of softly whipped double cream; left on its own to chill, it has the tendency to separate.
Blueprint Zabaglione (Serves 2)
2 egg yolks
1 ½ tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp sweet wine (or any other alcohol!)
Small pinch of salt
1. Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar in a large heatproof bowl until they are thick and creamy. This should take approximately three minutes – you want the mixture to increase in volume and be light and frothy. N.B. Do not be put off by the amount of whisking – you are burning calories you will replenish shortly!
2. Gradually beat in the alcohol and salt, then place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Do not allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water – contact with the water would increase the likelihood that the mixture splits!
3. Continue to whisk the mixture over the pan of simmering water for approximately 8 minutes, until it at least doubles in volume. You want the mixture to reach the ribbon stage, that is the stage at which the mixture leaves a ribbon trail on the surface of the mixture when the whisk is lifted up. (If the mixture looks like it’s going to split at any point, do not panic – simply dunk the bowl in a sink of cold water and whisk like mad! It will come back together).
4. Take the bowl off of the pan and continue to whisk the mixture for a couple of minutes. (If you wish to serve chilled, now is the moment to fold the mixture into whipped cream). Decant into your vessels of choice, garnish, and serve.