“…is a question that when people ask me I just want to spit on them”. The quote is not mine but it could be. As well as: “I don’t like cake [..] I just don’t get them. I love making custards – frozen or baked or eggless or whatever – and doughs – pies, puff pastry, croissant. And I love making crostatas. If I could make a living just making crostatas I’d be the happiest person alive.”
Who knew I had an alter ego? Actually, I have known of the existence of this alter ego for a long number of years. We even share a name: Claudia. The Claudia in question is Claudia Fleming, and anyone in the pastry world knows she was the seminal pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, in the first, heady days of Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio. Ms. Fleming has received numerous awards, including the James Beard’s, and is possibly best known for the buttermilk panna cotta I have been making for years: creamy but not jello-like – simply ethereal.
You see, I hate cakes, especially that stupid cupcake variation. Obviously, Ms. Fleming and I are in the minority, judging from the cupcake empires that have conquered the Western World. What’s the artistry in a cupcake, other than pretty decorations? Custards and doughs is where my heart is. Learning to recognize the sound of a dough in a mixer or on a wooden board that tells you it’s ready. Whisking custards so smooth to make straining unnecessary. Flaky and melt in your mouth crostata doughs to showcase the taste of the fruit you plan to put on top. Rustic baking pitted against French tradition. I will take a perfect croissant (so hard to come by) over a pink macaron any day of the week.
Ms. Fleming is a remarkable woman of 55, who currently lives on Long Island and runs, together with her chef husband Gerry Hayden, the North Fork Inn and the interview I wish I had read ten years ago, when I started in the pastry world, appeared in the Fall issue of Lucky Peach (sadly not online, so I can’t link it). But if Ms. Fleming’s words, also an autodidact like me, were not there to prod me then, they helped me make up my mind as to what desserts I will be serving for my Christmas lunch. I tend to go elaborate, like the year I made the seven layer lemon cake or the one I decided to tackle home-made panettone (a three-day endeavor). Not this year: a simple blueberry jam crostata with barely a hint of sugar and the scent of lemon and champagne sabayon cream. My all time favorite. I guess if I had to answer the stupid question I was asked a million times – what is your favorite dessert ? – that would be it.
Champagne sabayon can be made with the more traditional Marsala wine (it will be sweeter) or with any prosecco. Don’t waste an extremely good bottle on this. As you won’t need the whole bottle unless you are cooking for an army, enjoy a glass of bubbly with your left hand while you whisk with your right. It will put you in a holiday mood in no time.
Because whipped cream is added, this dessert can be made a few hours ahead and stored in the fridge. I like to fold in shards of very dark chocolate in it and just serve it as is, maybe dusted with cocoa powder. If you are an ambitious monkey, fill a mille feuilles with the cream – it’s a match made in heaven.
And while the adults will be indulging with sabayon, for the kids there will be slices of humble crostata. That, according to Ms. Fleming and me, is not so humble after all.
RECIPE – enough for 8 to 10 people
6 Egg Yolks
3/4 C Champagne, Prosecco or Marsala
1 Vanilla Bean, scraped
1/3 C Sugar (I don’t like it overly sweet – you might want to add more according to your taste)
1/2 C Heavy cream, whipped to stiff peaks and lightly sweetened
Combine yolks, sugar, vanilla beans and champagne in a metal (non-reactive) mixing bowl.
Place it over a pot of gently boiling water. Whisk constantly until thick and tripled in volume (it will take about 6 to 7 minutes). If you have a thermometer, you are looking for a temperature of 160F.
Cool immediately over an ice bath.
In the meantime, whip and sweeten the cream. Gently fold the cream into the sabayon until fully incorporated. At this point, you might want to add bits of dark chocolate and fold them in.
Scoop the cream into serving cups (or martini glasses) and refrigerate until ready to serve.