Îles flottante, eggs in snow, floating islands … a rose by any other name … would still be a dessert consisting of poached meringues floating on a sea of crème anglaise, a vanilla-scented custard thin enough to pour (also called pouring custard).
As with many such desserts, it has a nonlinear history, beginning in the 17th century with a recipe for Oeufs à la Neige (eggs in snow) published in the 1651 cookbook, Le Cuisinier François, by “the father of classic French cuisine,” François-Pierre de la Varenne. Although this original version was made sans custard, it still used the egg yolks left over from making the meringue by piling them on top of the meringue “snow,” sprinkling them with sugar and baking.
By the 19th century, however, “snow eggs” had evolved into what we know today. In her classic treatise on everything a Victorian middle-class mistress-of-the-house must know, ranging from fashion to animal husbandry — Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management — Isabella Beeton included a recipe for poached meringues in custard.
(I must admit, having read the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of this book, originally published in 1861, I am very impressed with Ms. Beeton and all she attempted to accomplish — and pretty much succeeded in — with this book, which she wrote when she was only 22, which is a good thing, since she died at the young age of 28 after giving birth to her fourth child. You can read more about her and her astonishing upbringing; education; and successful career as an author, translator and journalist alongside her husband here.)
In 1902, the renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier published a recipe for “floating island,” which included kirsch-soaked ladyfingers covered with apricot jam, surrounded by a pool of custard and topped with a cloud of whipped cream. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the name became synonymous with the snow eggs that Ms. Beeton described as “a very pretty supper dish.”
And that brings us to 2013, when Mary Berry set this technical challenge before the bakers in the Great White Tent: to make, with an abbreviated form of her recipe, the classic known as Îles flottante.
The methods are not that difficult, if you know what you’re doing: a French meringue, shaped with spoons into quenelles, or egg-shaped ovals, and poached in a simmering mixture of milk, cream and vanilla, which is later strained through a fine-mesh sieve and added to whipped egg yolks and sugar and cooked until thickened. The poached meringues are then floated in the custard and topped with caramelized sugar.
Of course, I had the advantage of Mary’s full recipe, as well as access to The Great British Baking Show Masterclass episode (season 2, episode 2 on Netflix) where she and Paul Hollywood demonstrate how to make it. Having watched several of these Masterclass demonstrations now, I have often found discrepancies between what Paul and Mary say on the show and what the recipe says to do. In this case, fairly significantly, the recipe says the meringues should be flipped in the poaching liquid halfway through cooking, which Mary, in the Masterclass, emphatically says should not be done, so the meringues remain nice and white. In fact, she states that the lid should be left on the pan for a full nine minutes without peaking, so as not to lose the steam that cooks the meringues.
So following Mary’s verbal instructions, I didn’t have too much trouble, although my “eggs” weren’t as nicely shaped as hers. She does give a helpful tip about dipping the spoons in cold water to make nice, smooth quenelle shapes, but I guess I didn’t have the patience to make them perfect.
I also approached the sugar work with some trepidation, having had a hit-or-miss experience with making caramel in the past. It worked out pretty well this time, although instead of making little nests of spun sugar, mine came out looking more like curlicues.
In the end, my floating islands were a pretty decent representation of what Mary’s looked like. And they tasted good, too! The texture of the meringue was like the topping on a lemon meringue pie, and the warm, vanilla custard was smooth and creamy. Together, the whole thing literally melts in the mouth and slides down the throat in a smooth, silky stream. Mmmm!
Mary Berry’s Floating Islands
Adapted for American bakers
- 1¼ c. whole milk
- 1¼ c. heavy cream
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1¾ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar, divided
- Combine the milk and cream in a large, deep frying pan (preferably with a glass lid) and stir in the vanilla extract. Bring to a simmer over low heat. (Don’t let it boil.)
- To make the meringues, put the egg whites in a large, grease-free mixer bowl. Use the whisk attachment to whisk egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted out of the bowl. Using ¾ cup of the sugar, add one tablespoon at a time to the egg whites, and continue whisking until the mixture comes back to stiff peaks and the meringue is thick and glossy.
- Using two large serving spoons dipped in cold water, shape the meringue into six large, egg-shaped quenelles, and place them into the simmering milk mixture. Cover the pan with the lid and leave to cook over a very low heat for 9-10 minutes. (Make sure the poaching liquid doesn’t boil, or the meringues will puff up and then collapse.) Do not lift the lid for the first 9 minutes. When the quenelles are puffy and cooked (slightly firm to the touch), transfer them to a wire rack to drain.
- For the crème anglaise, pour the poaching milk mixture through a sieve into a large bowl or pitcher.
- In a clean mixer bowl, whisk the egg yolks and ½ cup of caster sugar together until pale and fluffy. Slowly pour the warm poaching milk over the egg yolk mixture, whisking continuously. Then pour that mixture into a clean, heavy-based saucepan and cook over a very low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously, until smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and set aside.
- For the spun sugar, melt remaining ½ cup of sugar in a small, stainless steel pan over medium heat without stirring. Cover the floor in front of your stove with newspapers, and lay a piece of parchment paper on the counter next to the stove. Grease a rolling pin or knife-sharpening steel with oil. (Be careful; the sugar will be very hot!) When the melted sugar turns a dark golden brown, remove the pan from the heat. Let cool slightly, testing occasionally to see if the caramel forms a string when a fork is dipped into it and lifted out. When that happens, use the fork to flick the caramel back and forth over the rolling pin or knife steel, creating strands of spun sugar. Gather the strands into a rough ball and place on the parchment paper.
- To serve, pour crème anglaise into a large serving bowl and float the meringues on top. Decorate with the spun sugar. Serve immediately in individual bowls with a little crème anglaise in the bottom of each bowl.
- The meringues keep surprisingly well in the fridge for a few days. I stored the crème anglaise in a separate container and poured a little into each dish, warmed it in the microwave for 30 seconds, and then floated the cold meringue on top. They are meant to be served cold or at room temperature. If not serving immediately, keep the spun sugar decorations in an airtight container.