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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Great Zabaglione Caper

It’s late, a little after eleven in the evening. The alleyway is soaked in shadows as I move in. My trench coat rustles against my feet. I have my collar turned up against the drizzle. The film noir scene is complete. “Is that the victim?” I gruffly ask an officer. “Yes, ma’am.” I click my tongue. What a sad sad way to end up. I lean in closer, too hard-boiled a detective to be shocked by the scene. The remnants of the zabaglione disaster ooze slightly out of the end of the dessert. What was supposed to be a glorious rolled angel food cake, full of ripe macerated Bing cherries and creamy brandy zabaglione is just a sad, slightly flat, slightly cracked version of the ideal. I flip open my notebook and begin jotting notes to myself. No, the Zabaglione Caper isn't a noir murder, its a food mystery. So I start with that all-important first note: Where did this all go wrong?

Part I: Zabaglione Capers

First, a confession: it is nearly a biological imperative in me that I not completely follow a recipe. The fun of cooking for me lies primarily in the thrill of the hunt, in the act of creating. However, I make allowances to follow one more precisely when it involves complicated structural elements. I do not, for instance, randomly vary the proportion of leavening agents in a baked good. That is just courting disaster.

But when I first read Alton Brown’s recipe for zabaglione through, I thought it didn’t sound so complicated that a few adjustments weren’t in order. I made two small changes. First, A.B.’s recipe says it makes 6 cups, which was way more than I needed, so I halved the recipe. Second, I didn’t have Marsala wine on hand, so I used a combination of brandy and port wine, which I thought would go quite well with the cherries. Other than that, I followed A.B.s directions to a T. When he said whisk, I whisked like my life depended on it. When he said stir constantly, I was a vigilante at the double boiler.

But A.B. promised me that the recipe would triple in volume, so the half recipe should have yielded 3 cups of delicious, foamy zabaglione. By contrast, my zabaglione attempt was scarcely more voluminous than the sum of the ingredients I put in. In A.B.’s and my own defense, it was tasty, even if it lacked the volume I was looking for.

So where did I go wrong? I begin by sleuthing around cyberspace for other recipes. Although I consider Alton Brown the gospel of reliable cooking, it couldn’t hurt to see how his recipe compared to others out there. Just as I do when I set out to create a recipe, when I began my CSI investigation of what went wrong in my recipe, I began by trolling around for what I could find online. I was immediately heartened to come across this comment on a food chat board, by someone else who had tried Alton Brown's recipe for zabaglione: "I made zabaglione once for four people and it turned out nicely. Dizzy with success then, I decided to make it for ten people. But one absent-minded moment with zabaglione and you have Chinese Egg soup, which is what I got." Slightly comforted I turn to the net for more info. A simple google search yielded:

Alton Brown (half)Single Guy ChefThe Wandering EaterUp North Blog
3 large egg yolks4 egg yolks4 large egg yolks3-4 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar4 TBs. sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons honey1/2 c sugar
¼ cup fortified port wine
¼ cup brandy
3 TBs. of port1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon fresh grapefruit and orange juice (equal parts)
3/4 c Marsala wine or dessert liquour

Here is a list of likely suspects that I think might have contributed to my disappointing volume:

  • This is just a fussy recipe. Some recipes, like some people, just seem to be fussy by nature. Any baker can appreciate that the quality of the bread may depend on any of 20 different variables, most of which are totally beyond the baker’s control (humidity? A distant cold-front?). However, neither A.B. nor any of these sites mention zabaglione as particularly fussy, and at least one claims she free-styles the recipe whenever she makes it, which likely means this is not the culprit. There was the one comment on a random cooking chat board, quoted above, but she seemed to have a particular problem with heat, not a lack of volume.

  • I cut the recipe in half. Even if the basic recipe is not fussy, some egg-based recipes, such as meringues, are finicky. For some, you can double them, but not triple them. For some, you can’t halve them. However, if we look at our comparisons, half of Alton Brown's recipe has almost identical proportions to these other internet recipes. On that basis, I'm ruling this out as the culprit.

  • Substituting hard alcohol for wine ruined the structure. I don’t know enough of the science behind this recipe to really completely rule this out, but I find it less likely. The recipes above seem to suggest that acidic citrus juice or dessert liquor can be substituted, so it seems not likely. I’ve still got my eyes on this one as a suspect, but I have other more dangerous suspects in mind.

  • My arms are weaker than Alton’s. Buff stud of the kitchen though he be, I am a pretty lean mean whipping machine myself. I beat these eggs with untold vigor. I even recruited my husband to give it a go. Unless others use a hand-held beater (which no one mentioned), I don’t think the earnestness of the beating was the source of the trouble.
  • My double boiler got too hot. At least one of the sites I checked out said that if you heat the mixture over too high a flame you will wind up with “egg drop soup” meaning the eggs cooked separately before they bonded into a nice custard-like mixture. But my early stage mixture looked well-combined just as they explained, so I’m ruling this suspect out.

  • My eggs were older than they should have been. The eggs are the workhorse in this recipe. Providing the structure for the volume. Older eggs have weaker protein structures, which probably means less ability to support volume. My eggs were a little past the sell-by date. However, with re-candling legal in most states, hard to know how old your little eggs really are.

  • In the end I’m left with old eggs as the culprit, but that doesn’t seem entirely satisfying either. So here’s an invitation: Vindicate me! Try replicating the recipe I used above, and if anyone can get 3 times the volume (for 3 cups total) let me know what you did, and through testing we’ll see if we can more systematically rule out any of the culprits. I’ll likely be playing along from home, as I can get these ingredients in Ghana too.

    Check back with our dear heroine later to find out what went wrong with the angel food cake, the assembly, and the rolling!


    Anonymous said...

    What a fascinating project! Though it's sad that your lovely dessert didn't turn out as planned, sometimes it's the pursuit of truth (and a really good trench coat) that makes the best stories. I'll be anxiously awaiting the next edition of...."Dessert Capers"! Dum dum dummmmmmmm.....

    Anonymous said...

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    Jeena xx

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    Erin said...

    Thanks Claire and Jeena. It is nice to feel like putting my mistakes out there can be an amusing and informative process :)

    Sherman said...

    I can't speak as to the success of cutting A.B.'s recipe in half, although I made the full one last night (6 egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup sweet amber Marsala, pinch of kosher salt), but it turned out *really* well.

    What I'm not sure about is storing it. I used about a cup of it last night, and left the rest in the bowl, which I covered in plastic wrap and placed in the 'fridge.

    This morning, it was somewhat collapsed. Any idea on how to store and/or recondition it? Just whisk it out again (I used electric beaters, actually. There's no point in actually whisking for 20 minutes)?

    Erin said...

    Sherman: I am glad to hear the recipe turned out well. I generally swear by alton brown in all things.

    As for reconstituting it, I cant say for certain, but I'd be thinking whipping is your best bet. If that doesnt work, the save all for in a pinch is to add a tad of unflavored gelatin and whip it in. This fixer is routinely trotted out on holiday call in shows where panicked hostesses are having problems with something (anything) setting up and holding up. So that would be my go-to guess, but both are really a guess as I havent tried it.

    Elisabeth said...

    Although your post is dated, I hope you don't mind my commenting. I just made some zabaglione, whisking as though my life too depended on it and with the same results--input=output. (I didn't use A.B.'s recipe, but they're all kind of similar.)

    Anyhow. I ran to the computer and ran a search about "zabaglione not tripling in volume" and am glad to have found a fellow-dense-zabaglione-maker.

    I too fear the "old egg" culprit. I mean, not even a little bit more volume... *Sigh*

    Erin said...

    Luna: not only do I not mind, I'm positively thrilled to have you comment! Believe it or not, this recipe is still lurking in the back of my thoughts tempting me to try again. Sorry to hear it didn't work for you, even if selfishly my misery loves a little company!

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