Zabaglione is a foamy egg yolk sauce very much like a pourable custard sauce.
To make it, eggs are beaten with liquid over a water bath until they thicken, get foamy and increase in volume. The liquid can be water or alcohol such as Marsala, Cognac, Port, Sherry or Rivesaltes. Sometimes additional thickening oomph is provided via a starch thickener.
The finished zabaglione can be served hot or cold. It can be used as is as a sauce, or as the basis for other dishes such as a mousse. It is, however, most often served warm.
You can buy special pots to make zabaglione made of copper with completely rounded bottoms. The rounded bottom makes it easier to beat the Zabaglione than a flat-bottomed pot would. The only problem is you can’t really set it down without the pot toppling over onto its side. You can’t really use the pan for any other purpose unless perhaps you have a gas stove with rings that might permit the pot to stay upright. Still, though, left unattended the pot would probably still be somewhat unstable, as it is meant to be held constantly.
Italian versions of zabaglione are almost always meant to be served as a sweet dessert sauce, and so have sugar added.
The French version, though, called “Sabayon”, is just as likely to be used as a savoury sauce and is consequently just as likely to be made without sugar as it is with. You will see savoury Sabayon recipes for anything from “Sabayon au poivre” to “Sabayon au champagne avec ciboulette.” “Sabayon au poivre”, is often translated in English as “Black Pepper Sabayon” or “White Pepper Sabayon”, rather than just “Pepper Sabayon”, perhaps helpfully to suggest that chiles should not be used. Unsweetened or savoury Sabayon sauces can be used to sauce anything from oysters to poached chicken breasts.
In Venice, where Zabaglione is called “Zabaio”, the sauce is a sweetened dessert one whose ingredients are traditionally measured in eggshells.
A typical Venetian recipe would be:
- 6 egg yolks
- 6 half eggshells of Marsala
- 6 half eggshells of white sugar
The egg yolks are whisked in a pan off the heat with the sugar until frothy. Marsala is then whisked in, then the pan is placed over a gentle heat or a water bath and beaten constantly until thick and foamy.
In French, the phrase “Sabayon au marsala” is often used to connote the sauce when it is made Venetian-style.
5 egg yolks
1 whole egg
You need to make Zabaglione in a larger pot that what the sauce would seem to require at the start, as it will increase in volume. Beat in a pot off the heat until the mixture is creamy in texture, whitish in appearance and all sugar has dissolved. Whisk in 200 ml Marsala. Now place pot over very low heat, and beat steadily until the first bubbles (from heat) start to appear. The cooking time for a Zabaglione is 5 to 10 minutes, during which time you have to be at the stove beating it absolutely non-stop. The sauce will only start to thicken when its temperature reaches 160 F (71 C). If the mixture gets too hot, the egg may coagulate or go grainy, in which case it is ruined. If you feel the mixture is getting close to courting such disaster, remove it from heat for a minute or two, then return to the heat and beating.
The sauce is ready when it forms soft peaks.
Remove from heat. You can serve at this temperature, room temperature or chilled.
Alan Davidson, in “The Penguin Companion to Food” (London, 2002), writes that Zabaglione originated in the Medici kitchens in Florence in the 1500s.
Many other sources, though, credit it to a military commander in the 1500s named Giovanni (or Gian Paolo or Gianpaolo or Giovanni) Baglioni (c 1471 to 1520). He was an Umbrian noblemen, based in Perugia. In this version of Zabaglione’s origin, Baglioni camped with his troops in the area of Reggio Emilia, a city in Emiglia Romagna between Bologna and Modena. The local denizens referred to him as “Zvan Bajoun”, which is what his name reputedly would have been in their dialect. Armies march on their stomachs, and Baglioni — or “Bajoun”, had to find food for his men. Some variants of the tale have him instructing his men to be kindly in their pillaging, and only take eggs, honey, wine and herbs. Other more likely variants hold that far from having such delicate scruples, that was all his men could shake out of the peasants. In any event, Baglioni had the mixture made up and distributed to his men who loved it and named the dish after him. The name of the dish is held to have evolved from “Zvan Bajoun” to “Zambajoun” to “Zabajoun” to “Zabajone”.
Most versions of the above tale say that Baglioni was native to Reggio Emilia. This statement, however, is hotly disputed by inhabitants of Montrigiasco in the Italian area of Switzerland, who say that he was a native son of Montrigiasco, and that “Bajon” was in fact his name in their dialect.
Other versions say that Giovanni Baglioni camped at “Rocca di Scandiano” (aka Castello di Scandiano), a fortress 13 km south-east of Reggio Emilia, and that it was the fortress he besieged. The only siege, however, that Scandiano endured at all in the 1500s was in 1557, led on behalf of the Spanish King Phillip II and the Duke of Parma (Ottavio Farnese) by a commander named Paolo Vitelli. Vitelli’s men wouldn’t have had much time to go hungry, however: the owner of the fortified palace at the time, Ippolito Boiardo, surrendered with indecent haste (he was later executed in Ferrara c. 10 Nov 1560, ending the Boiardo line.)
Perugia was supposed to be part of the Pope’s realms in Italy, but under Baglioni it became particularly independently minded. Baglioni was lured to Rome by the Pope Leo X (aka Giovanni de Medici), imprisoned for 3 months, then at 2 am on 2 June 1520, was beheaded.
The “Giovanni Baglioni” tale is usually credited to a historian called “Numa”, who presumably is meant to be the French historian named Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830 to 1889)‡.
There was another Giovanni Baglioni (1571 -1644). This Baglioni was a Knight, but not a military one: a successful Roman painter, he was given the honour “Knight of the Order of Christ” by Pope Paul V. Baglioni the painter may have stirred up such a sauce to please a Roman mistress.
There appears to be no solid evidence for how Zabaglione originated, though it appears safe to say that it was being made by the end of the 1500s in Italy. The “Giovanni Baglioni” tale has “tall tale” written all over it, and should be dismissed as a myth. Alan Davidson has made the safest guess.
‡Numa Pompilius, to whom 14 books on philosophy and religious law are usually spuriously attributed, is presumably unfortunately out of the running, given that he died around 674 BC.
Literature & Lore
Because of the story associating it with giving energy to soldiers, it also become customary to serve it to newlyweds on their first morning together.
Zabaglione is the current way to spell it outside of Italy, though in Italy “Zabaione” is the spelling that has won out.