Italian desserts and quick zabaglione

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When you think of Italian food you probably don’t automatically fantasise about something sweet. ‘Dolce’ is a word we have absorbed into the English language thanks to Dolcelatte cheese and Dolce and Gabbanna yet not for its original meaning. To me the word conjures up images of sorbet, a glass dish of fresh and juicy fruit splashed with orange juice, or gelato creamy and cold, and fiendishly tasty.

Maybe this is because dessert in Italy, to me, seems to serve as refreshment to the summer heat or as an innocent morsel to sedate your palate after dinner. By visiting Italy in the winter, however, dessert was a new dimension to the eating experience.

After gorging ourselves with pasta, gnocchi, fresh fish, cured meats, bruschetta, and any number of delicious delicacies, Calum and I still managed to find room to share dessert. Whether this was merely to delay returning to the arctic afternoon outside I don’t know but we soon found ourselves enthusiastically selecting desserts from the menu. What came to the table was a slab of dense, crumbly cake upon which was a thick pile of ricotta swirled with gooey chocolate sauce. Sprinkled on top were moist cake crumbs jumbled with chunks and shards of chocolate. It didn’t take us long to clean the plate.

Tiramisu is a classic Italian dessert made with mascarpone cheese, coffee and dried sponge biscuits, and is translated as ‘pick me up’. In my opinion it is nothing other than indulgent. Layers of mascarpone custard divide the coffee-soaked biscuits, each dollop of cream dusted with rich dark cocoa powder.

A strikingly simple Italian dessert is zabaglione. I’ve always been intrigued by this dessert – partially because I can’t pronounce it but also because it looks like a thick and heavy cream even though it contains none. Similar to tiramisu it is a fluffy egg custard, however, this is laced with Marsala wine and speckled with vanilla, warming the rich moussey-cream. It has the velvety texture of a melted marshmallow, lazily dripping from the spoon, light as a cloud. The recipe I followed suggests a base of tart and juicy blackberries and any remaining are rippled through, creating a mottled pale purple. Although I kept the layer of fruit, ensuring the bite of bitter fruit to be a satisfying surprise at the base of the glass, I then sprinkled the mousse with fruit and grated chocolate. Any fruit can work instead of blackberries, as can any other fortified wine instead of Marsala.

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Blackberry Zabaglione

Adapted from BBC Good Food 101 More Low Fat Feasts 2010

Serves 4

1 punnet of blackberries
75g sugar + 1 tablespoon
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence or paste
1-2 tablespoons Marsala or equivalent sweet wine
A square of dark chocolate

    1. Divide the blackberries – three-quarters of the punnet into a bowl, the remaining quarter on some kitchen paper to absorb juice.
    2. Add the tablespoon of sugar to the blackberries in the bowl and gently crush the fruit as you stir to mix.
    3. Fill a pan halfway with water and put it on high heat until steaming and beginning to simmer. Meanwhile add the egg yolks, 75g sugar and the vanilla to a heat-proof bowl and stir until combined.
    4. Once the water is steaming turn off the heat and put the bowl over the pan. Whisk the eggs with electric beaters until thick and pale. The heat from the steam speeds up this thickening process.
    5. Pour in the wine and taste – and if you want add more! – before whisking the mixture again, this time for 10 minutes or so. The custard should show defined marks from the whisk and, when you gently pull the beaters out of the mixture, a prominent ribbon of custard should fall back and remain defined for 5-7 seconds.
    6. At this stage the eggs are ready. Divide the crushed blackberries between four glasses and spoon over dollops of custard. Decorate with the rest of the blackberries and grated chocolate.

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