Zabaglione: elegant and traditional dessert

Zabaglione con crema e frutti di bosco

We are right in the middle of the holiday season and that means we are busy.  But we still want to serve delicious and satisfying food.  What to do about dessert?  The answer is easy, elegant, ethereal and traditional -  Zabaglione.

Eggs and sugar whisked over the gentle heat of a double boiler turn first to a delicate froth, expanding and taking on a satiny shine.  Add some liquor, whisk some more and you are there.  Also known as zabaione and in French as sabayon, this luscious whipped egg concoction always put in a Christmas appearance when I was growing up. It was in fact, the only time we kids consumed alcohol.  

Most times Mom made this with the traditional Marsala, Sicily’s fortified wine, but sometimes she would surprise us with Vin Santo or Gran Marnier. Many Christmases have come and gone, but when I make zabaglione its heady mix of liquor and egg foam reminds me of Mom and Dad, my brothers and sisters and the wonder that is Christmas with one’s family.

But Mom never served just zabaglione.  Sometimes she’d serve it warm dressed with a bit of grated chocolate or pass it under the broiler and gratinee the top.  My favorite was when she cooled it and gently folded in some softly whipped cream.  I knew what was coming next -  frutti di bosco - the mixed berries - blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.  She placed a glass bowl of glistening berries on the table and gave one of us kids the big silver spoon to serve a mound of berries to all.  And then came the best part, the zabaglione con crema.  Light as air and heavily scented with liquor, it was a very special dessert.

Italians have been enjoying zabaglione for hundreds of years.  Even the ancient Romans enjoyed a drink made of beer, wine and eggs.  Some sources say zabaglione as we know it was born in the 16th century court of the Medici, while others claim Sicilian origins. What ever the region of its birth, zabaglione is one of Italy’s most popular desserts.

  On serving of Zabaglione with chocolate and berries
You can get as creative as you want with zabaglione starting with a simple formula of 1 tablespoon each of granulated sugar and flavoring (fruit juice or liquor) for 1 large egg yolk.  Some cooks even double the amount of liquor.  Keep in mind you are cooking egg yolks, and if you expose them to a fierce heat source, they will curdle.  I recommend the use of a double boiler.  Its gentle heat will protect against overcooking the eggs and help to achieve a smooth and stable egg cream.  By the way, I use the term stable egg cream because zabaglione properly prepared will keep for hours.  It will not separate or deflate.  If you plan to serve chilled zabaglione, use an ice bath to cool it. 
You can serve this dessert two ways.  The zabaglione can fill the glass and be the main attraction with the fruit as a garnish.  Or the fruit can be the star and the zabaglione a fancy topping.  I gave the spotlight to the fruit this time, but you can certainly do what pleases you.
Zabaglione con crema e frutti di bosco
Zabaglione with whipped cream and mixed berries
serves 4
For the zabaglione:
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dry Marsala OR Gran Marnier
For the whipped cream:
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 to 3 cups fresh mixed berries
chocolate shavings to garnish
Carefully rinse berries, and place on towels to dry.  
Prepare the double boiler: you need a stainless steel bowl large enough to set over a 4 quart saucepan without falling in and without coming in contact with the simmering water below.  Check pan and bowl size before you begin.  Bring 3 inches of water to a boil in a 4 quart saucepan.  Lower heat to a bare simmer.
In a stainless steel bowl whisk eggs and sugar together until foamy.  Set bowl over pan of simmering water and continue whisking while slowly adding the liquor.  Whisk continuously, keeping the egg mass in constant motion, scraping sides of the bowl until mixture lightens and thickens, holding a ribbon and almost triples in volume.  There must be no trace of raw egg taste.  If you are using a candy thermometer, look for a temperature of 160 degrees*.  Remove bowl from heat, quickly scrape contents into a second clean stainless steel bowl and place over ice bath to cool, whisking occasionally.  
As mixture cools, whip cream with 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract in clean bowl.  Gently fold whipped cream into cool zabaglione using a large rubber spatula.
Arrange berries in serving glasses.  Mound zabaglione atop berries.  Garnish with chocolate shavings and serve.
* The CDC recommends that eggs be cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees F.  to guard against Salmonella infection 


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