I heard the cutest conversation the other day while waiting in line at the grocery store. Two young and very athletic-looking men, with what looked like a five-year-old boy in tow, were discussing how to improve their batting average. Completely engrossed, they spoke animatedly about studying the pitcher, getting on top of the baseball, taking away the inside corner, among other things. The little boy listened quietly for a while and then blurted out: ‘Why don’t you just hit the ball better?’
It took them a second to get out of their technocratic mental state long enough to realize the little guy had made a funny. I laughed along with them and recalled the genius phrase from Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
I wish I could find more of this boy’s spirit in many of the articles I read about food and cooking these days. Sometimes it feels as though writers engage in a lot of culinary chest puffing, presumably to sound more knowledgeable, more discerning, more…brilliant.
Here’s a case in point. I recently spent time reading all I could about zabajone, a delicious and creamy Italian custard made from egg yolks, sweet wine, and sugar. All was fine and I was learning a great deal until my eyes landed on one particular article, written by a pastry chef with 10 years of experience at one of New York City’s most prestigious restaurants.
Within minutes of reading her convoluted take on how to prepare it, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat. With horror, I realized I didn’t have many of the wares she prescribed in what I otherwise consider to be my fairly well-equipped, well-stocked kitchen.
For starters, I didn’t have the right kind of mixing bowl for the job. It absolutely needed to be copper since –as she explained – copper conducts the heat from a boiling water bath evenly, which in turn offers more control over the cooking process and prevents the yolk from overcooking in spots. I also didn’t own her runner-up choice, a glass bowl. Strike one.
But my bowl failure didn’t end there, since my bowls also aren’t perfectly round-shaped. Apparently, squared- or angled-bottom bowls don’t allow the whisk to beat smoothly across and through the custard. Strike two.
Finally, I didn’t have the type of double-boiler system she prescribed, which needs a pot to fit the bottom and about one-half the sides of the mixing bowl, allowing the bowl to fit snugly and comfortably without too much tilting to one side or the other. Strike three.
I was out.
And that was before I discovered I didn’t even have the specialty, hard-to-find Italian wine called Vin Santo, which she claimed created the best results. Now I was clearly out out.
My spirits were dragging even though, much to my relief, I discovered that I at least had the right kind of whisk, which – according to heil chef – needs to be 12- to 14-inches long, preferably round or balloon shaped and with flexible tines.
Then I remembered something that made me feel better. Instantly. Growing up, my mother made decadent zabajone using just a small, heavy-bottomed pot over low heat, a small whisk, and widely-available Marsala wine. It turned out creamy and delicious every time. Without all the hoopla.
Perhaps if my mother had read this article, it would have discouraged or intimidated her from even trying it, and my family would have lost out on a great dessert. THAT would have been the real strike out for me.
Now, I believe this chef’s intentions were honorable. She was undoubtedly sharing her passion for a dessert she cherished. But sometimes the best intentions can backfire if we forget that cooking is, after all, not brain surgery. Should someone need to dig into my cerebellum, I certainly would expect exacting tools and techniques. Cooking is mercifully more forgiving.
As a food writer, it’s a good reminder to always KISS (keep it simple serena) the recipes I share with readers.
But enough soapbox talk…let’s get cookin’…
Bring two inches of water to a boil in a small pot set over high heat.
Add 6 egg yolks and 6 tablespoons of sugar to a large, deep stainless steel bowl (copper and glass will also do!) and place it over the small pot.
Lower the heat to medium, so that it stops boiling and starts simmering. Whisk the yolks, preferably with the whisk attachment of an immersion blender. You will need to whisk for 5 minutes or so, which gives the sugar time to dissolve.
At first, it becomes frothy…
Now the mixture will be thick and glossy, resembling a pale yellow, loose pudding.
Now decrease the whisking speed to low and add 1 cup of Marsala wine (you can also use Moscato, Port and Madeira), a couple of tablespoons at a time, and a pinch of salt. Continue to whisk. The steam of the simmering water will warm the mixture, which will cause it to thicken. As it thickens, it will start to grow in volume. The process should take about 4 minutes or so after you add the wine. The zabajone will be done when the whisk, once moved through the mixture, leaves a trail behind that is visible for a few seconds before merging back.
It will also look even paler in color.
Remove the zabajone from the heat and continue to whisk for a couple of minutes, allowing it to cool slightly. Spoon into small, elegant ice cream bowls and serve as soon as the custard has cooled enough to consume. Offer some delicate dessert cookies to complete the picture. If serving chilled, allow to completely cool and then refrigerate, covered, for up to 4 hours. Makes 4 servings.