If tiramisu was a pick-me-up for the lady of the night, I always imagined Zabaione (also zabaglione, sabayon) to be the exact opposite. A miraculous feat of three ingredients- eggs, sugar and wine combined over low heat, the zabaione tastes like spooning up delicate sweet clouds, whetted with booze. By itself, it’s more comforting than a shoulder to cry on if you’re bouncing back from something heart wrenching, but when put together with cake, it’s finally a dessert whose crumbs are worth fighting over.
I can’t put a number on the times I’ve seen my mum fill cocktail glasses with zabaione before a dinner party, but not a peep out of anyone. We love the sheer speed at which it can be whipped up and land in our eager hands. The sisters and I would sit around later playing drunk and joke about bad parenting. The choice of wine, we were told is originally Marsala, but when I started making it, any fortified spirit of choice, I found, would work well. I made it once with the local port, and this cake’s filling alone drank about 250ml of Sula Late Harvest, an ideal dessert wine if you’re looking to make zabaione.
While it is possible to drink zabaione like a cocktail right after it has been whisked over the double boiler and thickened, the eggy flavour is too strong and I know that a number of people object to this. And so, by gently folding the chilled zabaione into stiff whipping cream is the way to serve, as it mutes the flavour a bit. We will be doing this for the cake.
Harry’s Bar in Venice is credited with the original recipe for this cake and the celebrated Delia Smith gives it her own spin. Delia sides with a rich pound cake that uses a slipshod method without separating yolks from whites, which is okay if I want two rather flat, heavy layers sandwiched with filling, but by making a slightly airier cake, you’ll be able to make an additional layer, giving the cake a bit of height. This will hold up better with the icing, without slipping. Since zabaione is looser than a mousse and very light, Delia and the Harry’s Bar Cookbook both add a few tablespoons of flour to their filling to give it more body.
For The Cake
Eggs 3, separated
Baking Powder 1 1/2 tsp
Vanilla essence 1 1/2 tsp
For The Zabaione Filling
Egg Yolks 3
Caster Sugar 75g
All-purpose flour 40g, sifted
Sula Late Harvest 250ml (or any port will do)
Whipping Cream 340ml
Start with the zabaione filling. Make a double boiler setting with a pot for your water bath and a round glass bowl that fits snugly above without tilting. You should be able to lift it easily and there should be enough space, 4 inches at least, between the heat source and your glass bowl.
Next, bring the water to a simmer and whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in the glass bowl. Do not leave this unattended as it will burn. Slowly whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, followed by the wine and a pinch of salt and whisk once again in an up-and-over motion because the objective is to incorporate air in the mixture, make it foamy, then thick.
Transfer the mixture to another medium-sized saucepan and stir the zabaione with a wooden spoon until it begins to thicken after five minutes of brisk whisking. If it begins to separate, don’t worry. Just take it off the heat and stir it vigorously. Whisk till smooth and thick. Now take it off the heat and cover the surface with clingfilm to prevent a skin from forming and bring it to room temperature before transferring it to the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius. Grease, flour and line three 7-inch in diameter cake tins. Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside. Beat the egg whites stiff. In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar using a hand-mixer, till fluffy. Now add in 1/3 rd of the flour and one egg yolk together with the vanilla and mix for 40-45 seconds. Repeat this process twice till all the flour and egg yolks have been incorporated. Take a heaped spoon of the stiff beaten egg whites and whisk vigorously to aerate the batter. Then, fold in the remaining egg whites. Divide the batter into the three pans and bake for 15-20 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Turn them out onto a cooling rack immediately if they have left the sides of the pan, peel off the baking sheet and let them cool.
To serve the cake, whisk the chilled zabaione mixture in a large bowl till it has loosened a bit. Beat the whipping cream to stiff peaks and fold in the zabaglione. Keep one of the three cakes on a flat surface and spread the filling on top using a palette knife. Keep aside some of the zabaglione to decorate the sides. Repeat this with the second layer and transfer to the refrigerator if the filling is looking too loose. Once the top layer is on, using your palette knife, smear the filling on the sides and using a motion going from base to tip, move upwards to make an even vertical pattern all around. Dust the top with icing sugar (optional). Let this stay in the refrigerator until it is ready to be served to guests. Remove it from the refrigerator 15 minutes ahead of time, before serving.