How to master an Italian classic


Claire Low

Zabaglione (egg yolks, sugar, cider brandy) from <i>Three Good Things</i>, by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

Zabaglione (egg yolks, sugar, cider brandy) from Three Good Things, by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

My latest dessert challenge is zabaglione, or, depending on who you are and where you're from, sabayon, zabajone or zabaione. This Italian treat is a frothy custard that usually incorporates marsala.

I'm using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe from Hugh's Three Good Things. This book sells us on the elegant idea that fabulous dishes can be made of just three ingredients a dish. The three ingredients in question here are egg yolks, sugar and brandy.

I scale this recipe back to serve three, which is to say, I halve all quantities.

This leaves me with a modest 38 grams of sugar, four egg yolks and 50 millilitres of brandy. It looks like very little indeed.


My opening gambit is to cream the sugar with the egg for a few minutes. It is then placed on a double-boiler, brandy is slowly added, then it's a question of whisking. And whisking. And whisking.

Now, this step is supposed to take up to 20 minutes. That's 20 minutes of standing over a stove with nothing to do except hold an electric whisk and watch my kitchen get slowly splattered.

I am impatient. I don't mind cooking but I like it to be a shade more action-packed than just standing around, whisk in hand, elbow up at right angles. I feel like a sucker doing it this way but the mixer's actual stand cannot be used on a double boiler. So here I am whisking. Whisking. Whisking. I check my kitchen timer. Gah. Only six minutes have passed.

I am waiting for the mixture to roughly quadruple in volume. I'm amazed to see that it does exactly this. It swells up and acquires a soft pastel yellow colour. The massive volume increase is truly impressive. It's like some kind of party trick. The amazing transformative power of eggs has always been incredible. Eggs are like the superhero of the kitchen, with all kinds of morphing abilities. They can be rubbery, they can be crispy, they can be fluffy and, as now, they may swell to terrific proportions.

Anyway, let's face it. I'm not going to get to the full 20 minutes. The recipe refers to a minimum of 10 minutes and I think I'm somewhere near this mark, or the 15-minute mark.

You've got to keep an eye on the temperature of the water in your double boiler, lest it get too hot and leave you with a big batch of cooked egg. Heat control is paramount here. I seem to recall my Dad going on about heat control at length.

It turns out he's right. When I scrape out the zabaglione, I see that one side my bowl is crusted with yellow. That's the egg - it has started to separate and cook, which is not what I wanted at all. Fortunately, most of the mixture is perfectly usable.

I serve the zabaglione in parfait glasses. Sure enough, the meagre ingredients do manage to produce enough for three. When you think about it, we're mostly eating air.

The taste is oddly sweet, which is a surprise because for each person we've got about 13 grams of sugar. The zabaglione has the taste of melted ice cream - a bit sickly sweet and custardy, as well as frothy and foamy. It needs a point of contrast, so eat it alongside kiwifruit, sour cherries or strawberries.

Egg yolks, sugar, cider brandy - zabaglione
Serves 6

8 large egg yolks

75g caster sugar

100ml cider brandy

Pour water into a large saucepan to a depth of four to fivecentimetres and set it to simmer on the stove. 

Put the egg yolks and the sugar in a large heatproof bowl and whisk together with an electric whisk for two to threeminutes until thick and creamy. Stand the bowl over the pan of gently simmering water and slowly whisk in the brandy. Continue whisking until the mixture is pale, thick and billowy, and roughly quadrupled in volume.

If you lift the beaters, the ''trail'' that falls onto the mixture should hold its shape for a few seconds before slowly sinking back in.

This will take at least 10minutes, or more likely 15-20minutes, so you might want to make sure you have a wine or tea by your elbow. Ensure the water in the pan is only just simmering and the bowl doesn't get too hot, or the eggs will start to cook and the mixture may split.

Serve straight away, while still warm, in elegant glasses. After 20-30 minutes it will start to separate.

Recipe and image from Hugh's Three Good Things, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, October 2012, $50)