Dining in a fancy Italian restaurant as a young girl, I thought zabaglione was magical. I remember watching a whisk-toting waiter propping a bright copper bowl over a flame, carefully cracking eggs, separating the yolks and placing them in a pan with some sugar. He swirled in a stream of Marsala from a huge bottle, then he whirled his whisk through the yolks and into the air, producing a fluffy foam which he spooned into a bulbous glass and served with strawberries.
But that wasn’t something I could order, I was told. It was made with alcohol.
Well, tempting as it may have been, maybe that was my gain. When I tasted my first real zabaglione years later, though I enjoyed the robust flavor of the Marsala, I thought it was better served with chocolate cake and an after-dinner espresso. It was just too much for fruit.
Many years later, working as the pastry chef at Stars restaurant in San Francisco, I was looking for a fresh way to serve summer stone fruits--peaches, plums and nectarines. Sabayon , the French version of zabaglione , is typically made with Sauternes--which is more floral and lower in alcohol than Marsala--and has lightly whipped cream folded into the chilled egg mixture to add smoothness. Just the thing for summer fruit.
The key to making a successful sabayon is to cook the egg mixture to the correct temperature, between 165 and 170 degrees, and then stop it right there. Eggs, like meat, will continue to cook for a while off the heat, so it’s important to have an ice bath ready to stop the cooking cold. An ice bath is simply a large bowl of ice and water big enough to hold the pan in which you are cooking the sabayon . The water needs to come up within one inch of the rim of the cooking bowl. When the sabayon is finished cooking, place the pan immediately in the ice water to chill it.
Because eggs are so delicate, you also want to make sure you don’t heat them too quickly. The best way to do that is with a double boiler, or bain-marie . You don’t need any special equipment, just set a wide stainless steel pan over a saucepan full of simmering water. The water should never touch the bottom of the bowl because the pan will get too hot and could cause the mixture to scramble.
Because eggs are a primary ingredient in sabayon, make sure they’re fresh; they’ll definitely taste better. Also make sure that all ingredients are at room temperature when you start. If the eggs are cold, place them (in the shell) in hot tap water for 10 minutes or so to warm.
Whisk the eggs, sugar and salt until they are pale yellow. Beat in the wine until the mixture is smooth. Now place the bowl over the simmering water and continue whisking until the mixture becomes foamy.
Because eggs scramble at 185 degrees and this mixture is cooked to 165 to 170 degrees, I always use a thermometer as a guide. I like the glass candy thermometers found in the baking aisle of the supermarket because they only require the bottom half inch to be submerged in the liquid (they also have a handy clip to fasten the thermometer to the bowl, freeing up one of your hands).
You can even make it a day or two ahead of time, but you’ll need to stir it up before serving as it separates a bit. Really, though, it’s best made the same day.
Sometimes I make it with champagne instead of Sauternes. On a hot summer night, it’s an easy dessert that doesn’t require baking and whips up on the stovetop in minutes.
Recently I’ve been on a sabayon kick. First I made it with an Orange Muscat wine. That worked so well I moved on to a late-harvest Riesling and a Moscato. They all brought something different. The Andrew Quady Essensia Orange Muscat has a hint of citrus with a smooth honey finish. The Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling was more complex with a spicy citrus flavor and the Robert Mondavi Moscato d’Oro was smooth, pleasant and fruity.
The one thing they all have in common is that they made splendid partners to all of the fresh fruit that is in season now.