Flavours of France: îles flottantes
Food writer Mary Cadogan explains the origins of this classic treat
Île flottante literally translates as floating island which is a brilliant description of a dessert that is simply a base of vanilla custard topped with poached meringue and finished with a flourish of caramel. It’s also called oeufs à la neige (eggs in snow), so if you see that on a menu you will know it’s essentially the same dish.
Unlike most French desserts which tend to be bought from the local boulangerie, this one has its roots firmly placed in the home kitchen and evokes fond memories of childhood for the French, maybe in the same way that perhaps apple crumble or baked rice pudding does for the English.
As with most simple things, the devil is in the detail, and while the ingredients list is short, it needs careful execution to pull off a good result. The custard is made with egg yolks, milk and cream flavoured with vanilla seeds, cooked slowly, and it requires your full attention to achieve a smooth, silky result. Overcook it and you will end up with a sort of sweet scrambled egg. If you are the cautious type, you can cook it in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water but this way takes longer.
The meringues are traditionally poached in milk in a pan, but I have always found this a tricky operation. If the meringue mixture is too soft or the milk bubbling too hard, you might just find the meringue dissolves into the milk. A chef in Nice once showed me a much better way that is pretty foolproof. He cooks the meringues in the microwave in china cups, or you can use silicone muffin moulds or ramekins. It works a treat and takes seconds. The île flottante he made for me had a chocolate custard and of course this is one of many variations on the theme.
For chocolate, just stir about 50g of chopped dark chocolate into the just-cooked warm custard. Other flavours to try include lemon or orange, coffee or cinnamon (add a couple of cinnamon sticks in place of the vanilla pod). If you order this dessert in a restaurant, you might also find a couple of sponge fingers in the base of the custard, soaked in a little alcohol such as kirsch or Cointreau making it more like a trifle but none the worse for it.
The final touch is the caramel, the making of which is not for the faint hearted and needs to be made at the last minute, so I prefer to make a praline and break it into shards over the meringue – the almonds also add a welcome crunch to offset the creamy custard. As it’s the height of the summer berry season, I have also taken the liberty of adding a few to the custard to add a fruity touch, but of course, if you prefer, you can omit these.
Strawberry îles flottantes
This delightful dessert is the perfect finish after a summer barbecue, and will go down a storm with all ages.
150ml single cream
1 vanilla pod
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
100g caster sugar
50g flaked almonds
3 egg whites
75g caster sugar
500g strawberries or mixed summer berries
Pour the milk and cream into a pan. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the pan, then add the pod. Bring slowly to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until light and pale. Bring the milk back to a rolling boil, then quickly whisk into the egg yolks to make the custard. Leave to cool, then remove the vanilla pods and chill.
For the praline, have ready a board covered with lightly oiled foil. Heat the sugar in a heavy based pan without stirring until it has dissolved and turned golden. Remove from the heat, stir in the almonds, and quickly spread over the foil. Leave to cool, then break up into small chunks (a rolling pin is good for this job).
For the meringue, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then add the sugar in three batches, whisking well after each addition until you have a stiff glossy meringue. Divide between 6 teacups or ramekins, and cook three at a time in the microwave, on medium, for 1 minute. The meringue will rise up, then sink back in the cups.
Cut any larger fruits into pieces, then mix all the fruit together. Divide between 8 wide, shallow glasses and pour over the custard. Carefully spoon the meringues out of the cups onto the custard using a metal spoon, then scatter over the praline. The puddings will hold in the fridge for up to 1 hour, or 3 hours before adding the praline.
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