There have been countless pieces written and Instagram photos taken in adoration of the humble egg and all its charms. And rightly so. Slow-cooked soft scrambled eggs, jammy eggs floating in a bowl of ramen, or two fried eggs alongside a side of hash browns are what dreams are made of. Unlike avocado toast or turmeric tea, we can't breezily dismiss the egg as yesterday's unrelenting trend because it brings utility to the table. It is not just a food to be enjoyed unadorned, but a vital tool in the kitchen, transforming things into other things that don't even slightly resemble their original selves.
One dish that couldn't exist without eggs but doesn't get its due is sabayon—zabaione (or zabaglione) to the Italians, who stake claim to its invention. It's a cream sauce that’s traditionally made with wine, egg yolks, and sugar, but sabayon is really more of a concept than a recipe. It doesn't have to be sweet, and you can vary the consistency based on how you intend to use it: as a standalone dessert, a sauce, even a drink. Compared to crema pasticcera, which is a version of Italian pastry cream, sabayon is thinner, silkier, and less sweet.
By whisking together egg yolks and a liquid of your choosing vigorously over heat, you aerate and emulsify, yielding an ephemeral mixture that's part custard and part froth, with a rich underlying flavor. It's like crème anglaise's bubblier, wittier cousin from the land of spaghetti carbonara and bistecca alla fiorentina. But how exactly do you make this Italian treat and how do you use it once it’s ready?
Here's how to make sabayon/zabaglione without a recipe:
1. Pick your liquid.
Zabaglione is traditionally made with wine. You can use a dry white wine (don't overlook something with bubbles!) or opt for a fortified wine like marsala or sherry for more depth. Teetotalers may want to try this version with coffee—or you could go the tiramisu route and combine the two.
Pretty much any liquid will work, which opens up endless possibilities—including savory iterations like this one, which combines fresh grapefruit juice and zest with chicken stock and a little vodka to yield a silky, tangy not-at-all-sweet sauce for fish or chicken.
It's like crème anglaise's bubblier, wittier cousin.
2. Measure your ingredients.
The standard ratio for sabayon is equal parts egg yolk to liquid to sugar, but you can adjust the amount of liquid based on how thick you'd like your sabayon to be.
A trick that we learned from the chef at the Demeyere cookware factory in Antwerp (mrslarkin's Italian mother apparently used the same method) is to use an empty eggshell to measure the rest of the ingredients. An egg yolk is roughly one tablespoon in volume, and the white is about two tablespoons. Thus, half an egg shell holds 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons—allowing you to eyeball your measurements. Bank on one egg yolk per person, and go from there.
3. Have everything else ready.
Sabayon needs constant whisking so that it doesn't overcook or turn into scrambled eggs, and it will only hold for a few minutes before it starts to deflate and develop a wrinkly skin on the surface. If you're using the sabayon to top fish or meat, it should already be resting in a warm place so that all you have to do is put it on plates and spoon the sabayon over the top. If you're assembling a multi-component Italian dessert, make sure everything else is ready to go before you turn on the stove.
4. Whisk, whisk, whisk. And then whisk some more.
If it's your first attempt, it's a good idea to make the sabayon in a double boiler or over a bain marie in order to avoid ending up with scrambled eggs.
To do this, bring an inch or two of water to a simmer in a shallow saucepan. Place a heatproof bowl, such as glass Pyrex, that rests easily in your saucepan and make sure that it doesn’t touch the surface of the water. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, if you're using it. When the yolks are pale yellow, whisk in the liquid and any other ingredients, then set the bowl over the simmering water, whisking constantly.
The mixture will quickly begin to froth and expand in the bowl. Whisk vigorously for several minutes, making sure the water in the saucepan never gets above a simmer, until the sabayon is thick and ribbony and at least doubled in volume (the temperature should reach about 150º F). If you have any uncertainty, use a candy thermometer to check the temperature.
Once you've made sabayon a few times, you can experiment with cooking it over direct heat. The chef at Demeyere told us he demonstrates the quality of their stainless steel cookware by wowing his audience with a sabayon made directly on the burner. Use a good quality saucepan with even heat distribution and rounded base and cook the sabayon over a medium flame, moving the pan on and off the heat as you whisk to keep it from boiling…or worse, burning.
Serve the sabayon warm, or continue whisking it off the heat until it cools a bit, but do not let it sit for more than a few minutes.
Once you’ve mastered the basic elements of making sabayon, you can have fun experimenting with different savory and sweet flavor combinations.
If it's your first attempt, it's a good idea to make the sabayon in a double boiler or over a bain marie in order to avoid ending up with scrambled egg.
Here are some more ideas for flavor combinations to try:
egg yolk + champagne + lemon juice and zest + pinch cayenne
egg yolk + sherry + sugar (fold in whipped egg whites at the end)
egg yolk + beer + sugar + black pepper (the Belgian edition—see recipe below)
So, what exactly do you do with sweet sabayon once you’ve successfully made it? You can eat it on its own, but it’s super good when used in place of whipped cream as a cream sauce over fresh berries. You can also use it as a sauce the way you would with crème anglaise; drizzle it over a slice of cheesecake or serve it with chocolate lava cake. Or, perhaps my favorite idea, make bread pudding with sabayon and cornetti, an Italian version of a buttery croissant.
As for a savory iteration, serve the sauce alongside roasted oysters, blanched asparagus (as a swap for bearnaise sauce), or seared scallops.
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