Something’s happened to my tolerance for sweets. I used to be mad for a scoop of ice cream or a slice of cake with my afternoon coffee. I looked forward to the occasional chocolate bar or sticky toffee pudding. Now everything seems too sweet, and I find my tummy tightening when I spread icing on family birthday cakes. Last Christmas while everyone around the table happily tucked into the Buche de Noel (our chocolate and caramelized almond French rolled cake), I was content with a little bowl of poached meringues in crème anglaise. These individual meringues, about the size of a giant marshmallow, and their mother custard have become my current dessert of choice. They pair well with poached fruit, fresh berries, roasted nuts, caramelized sugar and offer the experience of real dessert with a light touch. I recently prepared these floating islands with raspberries for a luncheon pudding, and a swoon fell over the table.
We have here a two-part recipe. Each is easy to make and can be finished well ahead of serving. First there’s the custard sauce, a lightly sweetened rich milk thickened with egg yolk and perfumed with vanilla. Many cooks suggest a crème anglaise as thick as pudding, but I prefer a lighter, thinner sauce, the consistency of heavy cream. Second, we use meringue made from the egg whites. Traditionally the meringue balls are poached in simmering water or milk, but I recently discovered a method of poaching the meringues in custard cups or ramekins where they maintain perfect shapes and are easy to store for several days. The meringues with custard are delicious on their own and they can be made more festive garnished with a few sugar-macerated berries or poached rhubarb and a sprinkling of crushed caramelized almonds. Here’s the perfect pudding for spring—especially suitable now as we’re all trying to use LESS sugar.
Floating Islands or Snow Eggs (Oeufs a la Neige)
20-22 fl. oz. (2 ½-¾ cups) whole milk* (use larger amount for extra large yolks)
4 large or extra-large egg yolks (save whites for meringue)
2 oz. (scant 1/3 cup) sugar
half a vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* Include ¼ cup heavy cream for extra luxury.
Heat milk with split vanilla bean in 2-quart saucepan. In medium bowl whisk egg yolks with sugar. When milk is very hot, but not boiling, whisk 1/3 milk into egg yolks. Whisk and return milk and yolk mixture to remaining hot milk. Exchange whisk for metal or wooden spoon, and stir custard constantly in a figure-eight motion until it coats back of spoon. Test by drawing finger through custard on spoon; it should leave a definite trail. (As custard cooks, you will notice the fine netting of foam on top develop into a web of larger bubbles on the surface. Once the bubbles disappear, cook the custard about another 3 minutes to reach the doneness test.)
When custard is ready, immediately pour it back into mixing bowl to cool, scrape seeds from inside bean into custard, stirring from time to time to prevent a skin from forming. When custard has cooled to room temperature, add vanilla extract if did not use bean. Pour into glass jar and refrigerate. Makes 3 generous cups.
4 egg whites
8 tablespoons sugar
tiny pinch salt
few drops vanilla
Before whipping egg whites, have ready 10-12 small ramekins or custard cups that will fit in a shallow pan of simmering water. (Cook 3 or 4 at a time if necessary).
Whip egg whites with salt until soft peaks form. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time and beat until stiff. Stir in vanilla. Spoon mounds of meringue into each of the cups/ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap. Place cups in wide skillet of simmering water; cover and cook 5 minutes after water returns to a boil. (You will notice the meringue puffs as it cooks then falls a bit as it cools) Remove cups from water and cool. Store at room temperature 2 hours or refrigerate 2-3 days.
To plate: place a circle of berry slices or halves and juice near edge of small dessert plate; pool 3 tablespoons custard in the center; tip meringue from custard cup and float in center. Sprinkle with crushed caramelized sugar if desired. Serves 8 with extra custard.
Note: try half a recipe for starters, Making 5-6 meringues and 1 ½ cups of custard sauce.