One of the easiest, oldest and most appropriate dishes to make for New Year’s Eve celebrations is one that rarely pops into people’s minds. Besides being simple, zabaione is one of Italy’s most famous holiday desserts doable in our American kitchens. Also spelled “zabaglione,” it’s delicious foam of emulsified Marsala wine, egg yolks and sugar. It’s known as a spoon sweet.
Zabaione is old too and has an interesting history. All kinds of theories have been advanced about the origins of zabaione — that it comes from the Greeks, or the Latin word sabaium, a kind of yeast, or from the French word sabayon (actually the French derives from the Italian), or from the French expression chaud bouillon (hot bouillon), or that it was invented by a Franciscan monk, Pasquale de Baylon (1540-1592), who lived in the Parish of Saint Thomas in Turin at the time, or from the 17th-century chef of Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy.
More than likely zabaione is Sicilian in origin, derived from the Sicilian word zabbina (also called zarbinata and zabb, which refers to the foam of the whey resulting from the boiling of the milk for ricotta and means “to whip while cooking,” which is exactly what you do to make zabaione. Zabbina derives either from the Arabic words jabbān (jubna) meaning “cheese” or zarb, meaning the thick part of curdled sweet milk mixed with an acidic liquid, that is, according to the early 19th-century lexicographer G.W. Freytag, author of “Chrestomathia Arabica,” thought also to be the root of the custard dessert zabaione.
The first mention of something like this “creamy foam made from beating egg yolks with sugar and the addition of Marsala wine in a bain-marie” can be traced to the 15th century where it was called xabaione or zebaion. In Sardinia, the groom is often handed a bowl of zabaione to give him strength on his wedding night. Zabaglione was originally served hot, but today it is served cool. One last piece of advice: You’ll want to use a high quality Marsala, such as that made by Florio and not some cooking wine. Either dry or sweet Marsala can be used.
- Combine the egg yolks, sugar and Marsala in the top of a double boiler. In the bottom portion, bring enough water to touch the bottom of the top part to a boil over high heat, whisking the egg mixture swiftly all the while. Continue until well blended, thick and frothy, about 4 minutes after the water starts to boil. Remove from the heat immediately.
- Pour into 4 large wine glasses or, preferably, martini glasses, and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours covered with plastic wrap. Garnish with strawberries, mint leaves and whipped cream, if desired.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Zabaione. Credit: Clifford A. Wright