Why It Works
- The ratio of 4 egg yolks per 1/4 cup of a strong fortified wine like Vin Santo produces a thick and silky foam that perfectly balances the wine's intensity.
- Immediately whisking the eggs with sugar prevents the sugar from "burning" the eggs, which can happen if the sugar is dumped on top but then not mixed in right away.
After over a decade at Babbo, I've made a helluva lot of zabaglione. Enough to fill Fiat Cinquecento, I'd say, and I never grow tired of it. Zabaglione, or its alternate spellings of zabaione or sabayon (in French), is a marvel of a dessert—with three basic ingredients and a bit of practice at whisking over a water bath, you are rewarded with a warm, boozy, egg-y cloud of deliciousness, the down comforter of the dolci universe.
It is also the ideal last-minute dessert fix; all you need to make a fantastic zabaglione is egg yolks, wine, sugar, and some good arm muscle. The basic formula to serve four generously is 4 egg yolks, 1/4 cup wine (or a combination of wine and spirits), and 1/4 cup sugar. I like to add a tiny pinch of salt to enhance the flavor. The recipe can be doubled to serve a crowd, and modified slightly to play with the flavors. Try not to stray too far from these proportions, however; zabaglione is an emulsion, and the proportion of fat to liquid plays an important role (for more on the recipe ratios, see below).
Choosing a Wine
I like to make my zabaglione with Vin Santo, because it is a wine with both sweetness and acidity. I sometimes combine the Vin Santo with rum or grappa; you can use brandy or any infused spirit to create whatever flavor you want. Marsala creates the flavor that most Americans are familiar with, but in Italy, the wine of choice is usually something local, which isn't difficult since every region produces at least one sweet wine. In Piedmont, where zabaglione originated, it is often made with bubbly Moscato D'Asti, or Brachetto D'Acqui.
It is important to be familiar with the flavor of whatever wine you choose. Some dessert wines are high on the sweet scale, and in that case you may start with a larger proportion of something drier, adding the sweeter wine as an accent, or adding one or two teaspoons of fresh lemon juice to balance things out.
The Right Equipment
The list of ingredients for zabaglione may be short, but the devil is in the details. Start off with selecting the right bowl. At Babbo, I use a heavy copper bowl that once belonged to the Coach House, the famed New York restaurant that closed its doors in 1993, and it works just beautifully. Copper conducts the heat from the boiling water bath efficiently and evenly, allowing you to control the cooking process. If you don't have a copper bowl, glass is the next best choice; its insular properties prevent the zabaglione from overcooking in spots. The goal is to create heavenly, luxurious foam. Thin, stainless steel or ceramic bowls heat far too quickly and unevenly, and before you know it, you've made an omelet. Plastic is just a plain no-no.
The pot that you choose for your boiling water bath, or bagno maria, should fit the bottom and about one-half the sides of your bowl, allowing it to fit snugly and comfortably without too much tilting to one side or the other. You should be able to lift the bowl (with potholders or a kitchen towel to protect your hands) off the pot without too much difficulty.
It is also important to use a round bowl, not one with a squared or angled bottom, so the whisk travels smoothly across and through it. The final consideration when matching your pot to your bowl is depth; you should be able to simmer at least 4 inches or so of water, with a good inch of space between the water and the bottom of the bowl; be careful not to allow the water to touch the bowl.
The last vital piece of equipment is a good whisk. Unless you are making dessert for an army, a medium sized, 12 to 14-inch whisk will work just fine, preferably round or balloon shaped with flexible tines. Pick one that feels good in your hand—not too heavy, not too light—and do a few test strokes in the bowl. If you can comfortably create a smooth, fluid whisking motion, you're set to go.
Zabaglione Cooking Technique: Simmer and Whisk
The first step of making zabaglione is bringing your pot of water to a simmer and combining the ingredients off-heat. Remember the golden rule: Never dump sugar on egg yolks and hesitate or walk away, even for a few seconds. The sugar will "burn" the yolks, creating hard, unpleasant clumps that won't dissolve. Whisk in the wine or combination of wine and spirits, a wee pinch of salt, and if necessary, the lemon juice. Whisk the ingredients together off heat to create a foamy texture that will give you a good head start.
"This isn't the time to change the TV channel or answer the phone (heck, I don't even like to talk when I'm making zabaglione); you're pretty much stuck there until it is done."
Next, place the bowl over the simmering—not boiling—water and keep whisking. Remember to always keep the mixture moving in an up-and-over motion. The goal is to incorporate air into the zabaglione as you cook those yolks. This isn't the time to change the TV channel or answer the phone (heck, I don't even like to talk when I'm making zabaglione); you're pretty much stuck there until it is done.
Monitor the water by occasionally lifting the bowl up and taking peek. If it is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer, as a full boil may result in bits of cooked egg forming on the sides of the bowl. The zabaglione will start to turn thick after four or five minutes of steady whisking.
There are signs to look for that will signal it is almost done: The whisk will leave tracks in the zabaglione as it moves through it, and it will mound easily. At this point, I start to perform my 8-second test: Lift the whisk up and let some of the zabaglione fall back onto itself. Count how long it takes before the fallen shape flattens, and when that point reaches 8 seconds, you're done. Take the bowl off the heat and place it on a folded kitchen towel on the counter.
Wait, you're not done. Keep whisking. That's right, keep whisking. It is necessary bring the temperature down a bit, which will help the zabaglione thicken further. I understand you might be tired at this point, but who can't use a little more arm toning? How long to whisk it off heat depends on how you wish to serve it. My favorite way is warm or at room temperature, to get the full impact of boozed-up egg. Chilling it by whisking over a bowl of ice water or beating it completely cold with an electric mixer works too, but mutes the flavor somewhat.
How To Serve Zabaglione
In a restaurant kitchen, it is common to fold chilled zabaglione into whipped heavy cream. I do this myself with a heavy heart; the cream allows us hold the zabaglione for the many long hours of service and shape it into a perfectly round quenelle on a plate, but we lose some impact of that wonderful, egg-y flavor. If I had my druthers, all my zabaglione would be made in the dining room and served warm, table-side.
Serve the zabaglione over a slice of cake, crostata or panettone, on top of fresh fruit with a sprinkle of toasted almonds, or alone in a beautiful dessert glass with some biscotti, amaretti, or savoiardi alongside. It is not often that a dessert is soothing, comforting yet elegant all at once, but zabaglione fits this bill perfectly.
Ratio City (by Daniel Gritzer)
The below recipe was originally written by Gina DePalma, who also authored everything above this section. After several site updates over the course of many years, her recipe in its original form was lost. There was more than enough evidence, however, to faithfully piece it back together, cross-test it, and then add it back to this article. Her ingredient quantities and ratios were all preserved thanks to her listing them in the headnote's second paragraph, and her technique (which is also the technique) was fully outlined in the Zabaglione Cooking Technique section above. All I had to do was confirm it all worked as described and then rewrite the recipe following Serious Eats's current recipe style.
But as a nitpicky recipe editor and a cook who can't not do my own nitpicking, I decided to do some additional research using my own treasured collection of Italian recipe books I've picked up during my travels over the years, including a couple prized cookbooks dedicated to Piedmontese cooking, the region from which zabaglione hails. Most conform closely to DePalma's recipe and ratios, but I found an interesting outlier in my copy of Ricette Delle Osterie Di Langa, published by Slow Food Editore in 1992. Langa, or what we call the Langhe more commonly today, is a sub-region of Piedmont in the provinces of Cuneo and Asti, famed for its food, wines, and yes, the product of those two things, zabaglione.
In fact, it's that area's low-alcohol, lightly sparkling, semi-sweet wine named Moscato d'Asti (not to be confused with the more fully sparkling wine from the same region once known, and maligned, as Asti Spumante) that DePalma mentions when discussing your wine options for zabaglione. In the Ricette Delle Osterie Di Langa, its recipe for zabaglione calls for Moscato d'Asti but uses a very different ratio of eggs: one whole egg plus one yolk per quarter cup of the Moscato (compare that to DePalma's four yolks for a quarter cup of Vin Santo).
Curious, I whipped up this other version and found that it had some logic to it. Compared to Vin Santo, Moscato d'Asti is a much lighter and more delicate wine in terms of flavor, aroma, and alcohol content. While DePalma's ratio works perfectly with boozier, more potent Vin Santo, a zabaglione made with Moscato d'Asti using those same ratios (and no extra liquor or booze as a boost) is almost entirely lacking in any of the wine's gently floral flavor, the Moscato having been drowned out in the richness of the yolks. The logic, then, of cutting the yolks with the whites of a whole egg when using mild Moscato makes some sense, and it works based on my tests, though the result is admittedly lighter, frothier, and less dense and silky compared to the all-yolks version. Point being, the ratios are fairly fixed, but you do have some room to play and some reason to do it, depending on what wine you're using.
One final culinary trick worth mentioning: As DePalma explained when discussing the need to stabilize the zabaglione foam with whipped cream when making batches for restaurant service (to the detriment of its flavor), there is another restaurant trick you can use to prepare zabaglione ahead and have it be perfectly aerated when it comes time to serve it, and that is to use a siphon such as the iSi with nitrous oxide chargers (the same gas used to make whipped cream out of a can). All you have to do is pre-cook the egg and sugar mixture sous vide for about 30 minutes at 180°F (82°C), then chill it, mix it with the wine, load it into the siphon, charge it with two nitrous "cream" chargers, and finally chill it thoroughly again. You can then squirt the aerated zabaglione right into serving dishes when ready.
This article and recipe were originally written by the late, great pastry chef, Gina DePalma. The recipe has since been cross-tested and updated by Daniel Gritzer, with an additional section authored by him on ratio variations based on his own research and testing.
4 large egg yolks (see notes)
1/4 cup sugar (1 3/4 ounces; 50g)
1/4 cup (60ml) Vin Santo or other sweet, fortified wine such as Marsala (see notes)
Pinch kosher salt
Fresh lemon juice, to taste (optional)
In a large saucepan, bring 1 inch of water to a simmer over medium heat; make sure the saucepan you use is large enough to snugly contain about half of either a copper egg bowl or a heatproof glass mixing bowl without the bottom of the bowl making direct contact with the simmering water. Meanwhile, in the bowl and off the heat, thoroughly whisk together egg yolks and sugar until homogenous and smooth. Whisk in wine and salt until the mixture is lightly foamy.
Using a pot holder or clean, dry kitchen towel to hold the rim of the bowl, set it over the gently simmering water and begin whisking immediately, making sure to use an up-and-over motion to incorporate as much air as possible and paying special mind to work the whisk all over the inner surface of the bowl so that the foam doesn't overheat in any spots (this can cause the egg to scramble). Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer, not a boil (check the water's status from time to time by lifting the bowl up and peeking underneath). Continue to whisk constantly until the foam begins to thicken, about 5 minutes (timing can vary depending on the type of bowl you use and the level of the simmer).
Once the zabaglione begins to thicken and the whisk leaves tracks as you move it, perform the "8-second" test: Lift a whiskful of the zabaglione and let it fall back down into the bowl. When it takes a full 8 seconds for the small mound of fallen zabaglione to fully flatten, it is done. Remove from heat, set bowl on a folded kitchen towel, and continue whisking, off heat, until thickened further and cooled until warm or at room temperature, depending on your preference. Add lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, only if desired to balance the zabaglione's sweet flavor. Serve the zabaglione as desired.
This recipe's ratio of 4 egg yolks per 1/4 cup of fortified wine such as Vin Santo or Marsala works very well. Another traditional wine option is Moscato d'Asti, which is much more delicate in flavor and lower in alcohol; in this case, you can still use the recipe as written, or you can replace the yolks with 1 whole large egg plus 1 large egg yolk per the same 1/4 cup volume of wine. This makes a lighter, slightly less dense and frothier zabaglione that can help show off the Moscato's nuances more clearly.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 6g||8%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||10%|
|Total Carbohydrate 14g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 13g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|