I have my repertoire of berry recipes indexed, if you’re interested, but my new obsession is berries with frothy custard clouds…or as the Italians call it, zabaglione. The first time I had it, I was a teenager, and thought it was the most exquisite dessert in the world. I’m not sure if I’ve been disabused of that notion.
It wasn’t just the taste of the custard. I said the word to myself repeatedly, slowly, sensually: zah-BAG-lee-OHN. As a word, it was a marriage between other things I loved to say: zamboni and linguine and Sierra Lione. It was much nicer, indeed, than the French word sabayon, a similar custard, the cookbooks told me, but one that seemed vastly different to me — almost smug in that way the French can be. No, zabaglione was what I wanted to float away upon if I could choose any liquid for Lethe. Zabaglione, take me away…
And as a young adult who reads more about the world than circles it soon discovers, I realized I had been saying it incorrectly. ZAH-bahl-YOH-nay. Makes sense, no? Much closer to sabayon, much further away from my version of linguistic heaven where custard canoodles on the perfectly shaven-smooth clouds of West Africa.
Nevertheless, it’s still good, the perfect summer evening dessert. With three ingredients: farm fresh egg yolks, sugar, and marsala wine (the sweet, fortified wine you can find in better supermarkets, but for godsake don’t buy the cheap stuff), it’s easy to count on it. Use the best eggs you can. Ones straight from the chicken will yield a lemon yellow custard; supermarket eggs, even good quality, will give you more of a pale froth.
You’ll need a strong arm. It’s a thin custard, sometimes served like a soup, but you’ll need to froth it to triple its volume. I’ve long loved the small drama of walking around a dinner party whipping cream by hand with a big whisk. Whipping the zabaglione takes just as long, anywhere from 10-15 minutes, and you really want a full volume. Pour it into long, skinny glasses over your favorite fresh berries, either macerated with a bit of sugar and marsala or just left nude as the way you found ‘em.
And don’t skimp, you frugal American, as I did in the photo. I saw a version at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco a couple of months ago that was served absolutely overflowing a tall pilsner (?) glass, frothing down over the sides of the glass and piled up a little on the charger plate. It was a disaster and fabulous and a showstopper.
If you’re interested in stabilizing the custard and serving it cold, see Elise Bauer’s recipe or others for the incorporation of whipped cream. You might also try Marcella Hazan’s cold red wine version, reprinted here. Just don’t put any extra flavoring crap in it, like vanilla. It’s perfect the way it is.
I was charmed by Giovanna Zivny’s history of the recipe, which reports the old fashioned way was to make the custard using the egg shell as a measurement, with a 1:1:2 ratio (egg yolk: sugar: marsala), so that’s how I eyeball it when I add the sugar and wine. Egg shells, however, differ in size and it’s an utterly bad way to measure things, not to mention the recontamination issues when handling egg shells in a dish that’s already suspect because the eggs aren’t completely cooked.
Also notable is that Zivny never uses a double boiler, so it’s not essential, but if you don’t your custard won’t be as frothy and will surely curdle on the bottom. Also, you might need to worry about the higher level of heat if using fragile glasses. Does that stop me? No. But you might be more particular, or have nicer glasses.
Serves two, preferably lovers, and preferably on a warm summer night. Whisper it to your partner in a husky voice: ZAH-bahl-YOH-nay is served!
- 3 eggs, as fresh as possible
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup Marsala or another fortified or sweet wine
- 2 cups or more fresh berries of your choice
Separate the eggs, place the yolks in a small bowl, and reserve the whites for another use.
Clean and slice berries, if necessary, and place in tall glasses or wine glasses.
Prepare the double boiler by placing 1-2 inches of water in a medium saucepan, then place a stainless bowl on top of the pan. Note you’ll need a large bowl to accommodate the whisking and triple-volume of the final product.
Bring water to a gentle boil on medium-low heat.
Whisk together the wine and sugar in the heated bowl until sugar dissolves. Add eggs, whisking constantly, and whisk them for 10-15 minutes, until the custard has thickened slightly, tripled in volume, and is very foamy and pale in color. If the eggs start to cook, turn the heat down to low and remove the bowl for a few seconds. Be careful, as this custard, like all custards, will break if overcooked.
Serve immediately, pouring the custard over the berries until barely overflowing.