Early in my marriage, finances and small children dictated that any romantic dinners my husband and I shared would be at home, after the kids were asleep. For dessert after one of these tête-à-têtes, I often whipped up a bowl of the light, delicate Italian treat known as zabaglione.
I beat the ingredients — egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine — in a battered yellow Le Creuset saucepan while chatting with Pavel across the kitchen counter. As soon as it frothed, I ladled the airy elixir into glasses and joined him on the counter stools, where we lapped up the soft foam and were warmed inside and out.
No one really knows where zabaglione originated. Some credit San Bajon, a 16th-century monk from Turin, with the dessert’s invention and name. Others believe the Venetians or the Medici family in Florence came up with it.
Technically, a zabaglione is a caudle, a hot, wine-fortified drink made as a healing draught for a sick person. The noun later morphed into the verb “to coddle,” meaning “to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness.” Which isn’t a bad way to describe how zabaglione makes me feel.
With a bottle of Marsala in your cupboard, you can whip up zabaglione on a whim. A child can make it; as kids, my siblings and I often did just that when there was no dessert available. While I generally use a heavy saucepan, most recipes caution you to use a double boiler, as you must not cook the egg.
The basic recipe is simple to memorize, with a 1:1:2 ratio of egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala. Older recipes use the broken eggshell as a measuring spoon; mine held about 4 teaspoons. Inexact, but laidback. What could be more relaxed than sloshing some Marsala into an eggshell?
Don’t, however, mistake simple for boring. Zabaglione and I have a past, and it never fails to transport me to wonderful places. I grew up hearing about the cooks at Vanessi’s, the legendary San Francisco restaurant, whipping up zabaglione to order. I have cloudy memories of finally eating there, perched at the counter, watching the white-jacketed cooks whisk the potion in battle-weary copper bowls before pouring the foam into metal ice-cream dishes.
Some kids wouldn’t care for the spirited taste, but enjoying the dessert’s sweetness and the way its frothiness disappeared against the roof of my mouth in such storied surroundings more than made up for the alcohol flavor.
When I was young, zabaglione felt grown-up. Now that I’m a grown-up myself, it just feels right.
Recently, Pavel surprised me with a trip to Venice. We arrived late on New Year’s Day. Most restaurants were closed that night, but we stumbled upon one, and shared a cuttlefish-ink risotto. Afterwards, Pavel explained to the waiter that it was my birthday. The waiter nodded and left the table. He returned with wedges of panettone, slathered in zabaglione ladled from a huge chafing dish. It was the perfect dessert for me. How could I ever associate it with anything but love?
Perhaps the reason such a simple dish inspires such love is its endless possibilities. At its simplest, zabaglione can be served warm in wine glasses you’ve just finished drinking from. A ladyfinger on the side, or a dusting of amaretti crumbs on top, can’t hurt.
For a more substantial dessert, spoon zabaglione over fruit. Summer’s peaches and strawberries complement zabaglione perfectly, while autumn’s pears and quinces contribute a deep harvest taste. And winter offers more options than you’d imagine: fresh citrus, preserved cherries, poached dried fruits (such as prunes or figs), or a few raisins that spent dinnertime soaking in a glass of rum all add richness.
If you prefer, make your zabaglione in the afternoon. For a mousse, fold whipped cream into the cooled zabaglione. Serve it in parfait glasses, perhaps topped with chocolate-covered orange peel, or use it as filling for sponge cake.
Frozen zabaglione mousse is essentially a semifreddo. Let it soften a bit before serving with fruit. Or consider layering it with a sherbet — maybe one of the fruit flavors that complement zabaglione so nicely, like peach or strawberry — for a bombe.
For those who feel dessert just isn’t complete without chocolate, fold a few ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate into the finished zabaglione. Or fold the chocolate into half a batch of zabaglione, fold whipped cream into both halves, and then spoon the mousses, side by side, into parfait glasses.
Wine choices can also vary a zabaglione. While Marsala is the traditional flavoring, there are many other choices. Marcella Hazan, for example, has a recipe for a cold red-wine zabaglione. For a delicate sauce, you might use leftover Champagne (does such a thing exist?). Sauternes would lend its complex flavors, juxtaposing nicely against the dish’s simplicity. If you use these French wines, call the dessert sabayon, and remember that French is supposed to be the language of love.
For a Valentine’s Day dinner, pick a zabaglione to match your relationship. If it’s early in your romance, or if you want to make a grand gesture, serve a semifreddo or a rich chocolate cake with sabayon sauce. But if you’ve been in love long enough to know that a quiet moment can hold as much as your heart allows, then all you really need is a battered saucepan, glasses, and two spoons. Or maybe just one.
Giovanna Remolif Zivny is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in Gourmet magazine and elsewhere on Culinate.
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