Thursday, December 03, 2009

Floating Islands (Meringues in Custard Sauce)

My grandmother had a rotting old cookbook from the turn of the century, which I used to leaf through when I was visiting. Its recipes were more of a historical tour than a guide for actual cooking. Possum? Aspic salads? Yikes. I spent many hours lost in its pages, but my favorite was the section entitled "Cooking for Invalids." It's a section you'd be hard-pressed to find in a cookbook today. There were nourishing soups, smooth purees, and a horrifying concoction called "beef tea" which involved chunks of raw meat, water, a canning jar, and a water bath lasting several hours. And then there were the custards.

I never much had custards growing up, other than the boxed puddings that took their place for my mother's generation. As the cookbook illustrated, to some people they represent sickbed food, or the slippery sweets of childhood. But for me, they have an elegant simplicity. Floating islands, or ile flottante if you're feeling French, is a lovely grown-up version of this smooth dessert. It features a particularly luscious custard, the barely-thickened creme anglaise. Into this puddle you dollop a meringue, gently poached in milk. You can also add a handful of tart berries if you have them, to cut through the milky sweetness. The islands of meringues can be smoothly shaped, in theory, although mine usually turn out more like jagged glaciers. But it's beside the point -- the meringues are just an excuse to allow you to pour yourself another sea of smooth custard.

Floating Islands

adapted from my friend Emily's grandmother's recipe

serves 6

2 cups milk
6 egg yolks
scant 1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
1/2 tsp vanilla


2 cups milk
6 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt

To make the custard: bring the milk to a boil over medium heat, then turn off the heat and let sit.

In a separate saucepan, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and salt until they thicken and lighten, about 3 minutes. Drizzle the just-boiled milk into the pan in a thin stream to temper the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Once the mixture is well-combined, place the pan over a medium-low flame. Continue to stir with a wooden spoon as it heats, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon so that it holds the mark if you draw through it with your finger. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as this happens, and pour the custard through a strainer into a waiting bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate until chilled (it will continue to thicken).

To make the meringues and assemble the dessert: Bring the milk to a gentle simmer over medium heat.

While the milk is heating, beat the egg whites, gradually adding the salt and sugar, until they form stiff peaks. Drop rough half-cups of the meringue mixture into the simmering milk. You can form jagged islands, or use two spoons to make somewhat smooth ovals. Let the islands simmer for one minute in the hot milk, then gently turn and simmer for another minute on the second side. Using a slotted spoon, remove the islands from the milk and set to drain on a clean plate. Repeat until all of the meringue is poached. The islands will swell dramatically in their simmer bath, and then shrink disappointingly when they're removed. Serve immediately on a puddle of chilled custard, or place in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours.


  1. I have always wanted to make this, the French name is in itself so seductive I can't believe it's classified as a "nursery dessert". I so hope the Daring Bakers that I belong to choose this as a challenge- I MUST reduce calorie intake! Yours looks great! Perfectly magical.

  2. Ha! It's always nice to have an external reason to load up on dairyfat.