Strawberries — the quintessential fruit of spring — are featured in all manner of desserts, but garnishing a goblet full of them with a light, soft zabaglione custard is one of the nicest.
This slightly frothy dessert originated in Italy; the custard itself, called “sabayon” in France, is made from egg yolks, sugar and wine, traditionally Marsala — a sweet, fortified wine. It can be served warm or chilled, on its own or as a garnish to sliced fruit.
Like its better-known cousins creme anglaise and pastry cream, sabayon is a stirred custard, so named because it is stirred as it sets. Unstirred custards are baked, usually in a water bath (think cheesecake and flan).
Sabayon can be made in a variety of ways. Most recipes call for the yolks and sugar to be whisked together until thick and light yellow in color. The wine is then slowly added before the mixture is whisked while it cooks in a double boiler or over a bain marie — a pot of boiling or simmering water — until it lightens in texture and sets.
The challenge is to get the eggs to set without scrambling them, which is why they are cooked slowly at a fairly low temperature. The bowl containing the uncooked custard does not touch the simmering or boiling water. It is steam that heats the bowl — a gentler and more controlled method than direct heat.
The eggs begin to set at about 160 degrees, but will scramble at about 180 degrees; slow cooking lets the eggs set before they reach 180 degrees.
Sugar plays an important role in custards by keeping egg proteins from binding together too tightly as they thicken over the heat. Sabayon uses just egg yolks, which contain lecithin, an emulsifier that helps keep the mixture smooth.
Another tip for smooth sabayon comes from Tom Rippy, executive chef for Betty Zlatchin Catering in San Francisco. Tom first mixes together the wine and egg, then strains the mixture before adding the sugar and cooking. The straining removes the whitish albumin and makes the sabayon even smoother.
In the accompanying recipe, I made sabayon with Moscato, which is more delicate than Marsala and makes it a better supporting player for the berries. Folding in whipped cream can also help lighten the flavor.
Because Moscato can vary in sweetness — a few are made in a dry style — the amount of added sugar can also vary.
Moscato is the natural wine pairing for this recipe. But, be sure the sabayon is not sweeter than the wine. Otherwise, the wine will seem too tart and dry by comparison.
BERRIES TOPPED WITH MUSCAT SABAYON CUSTARD
Ask your wine merchant about the sweetness level of the Muscat you plan to use (also called Moscato, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli), or look for the percent of alcohol on the label. In general, the lower the alcohol level, the sweeter the wine. For this recipe, the amount of sugar needed will depend on the Muscat’s style — sweeter or drier. A dry bottling might need up to 1/4 cup of sugar. If in doubt, err on adding less sugar. The custard can be made a day ahead.
- 2/3 cup semisweet Muscat wine
- 5 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons sugar plus more if needed
- 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
- Strawberries or other fruit
- Crumbled amaretti cookies (optional garnish)
Set up a double boiler using a heatproof bowl that will sit on top of a pot with water (the water level should be at least a couple of inches above the bottom of the bowl).
Use a wire whisk to combine the wine and egg yolks, then pass through a fine mesh strainer into the heatproof bowl. Whisk in the 2 tablespoons sugar.
Bring the pot of water to a hard simmer, then place the bowl containing the egg-wine mixture on top. Begin whisking vigorously. The mixture will start becoming foamy and light. Occasionally scrape along the edges to minimize the eggs cooking. Continue whisking for several minutes until the custard sets, but don’t overwhisk, which can deflate the mixture.
Remove the bowl from the heat, then lightly scrape the custard into a clean nonplastic bowl set over an ice bath. Avoid dislodging any cooked-on egg. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate.
To finish: Taste the sabayon; if needed, add more sugar to the cold cream, if using. Whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold into the sabayon. Divide the fruit between bowls, spoon some sabayon atop and garnish with crumbled amaretti cookies, if desired. Serve remaining sabayon on the side. Serves 6.