Not only does it look odd (really, don't you think a lump of meringue in a puddle of creamy stuff appears a bit unusual? or am I just being provincial?) but this two page recipe isn't what I'd term "easy." Easy is stirring together an ingredient or two and popping it in the oven. This recipe, on the other hand, has a meringue element and a custard element, and if you're being traditional, a caramel element. Each of these contain a few potential pitfalls for a home baker like me. But assuming you are French or can otherwise effortlessly breeze through these components without mishap, there's always the mountain of bowls and pans this recipe produces...
So the whole time I was cooking this, I thought of people in their kitchens in France, blithely manicuring and poaching meringues and coating spoon backs with perfectly tempered custard.
I made half recipe for my husband and me - it stretched for two desserts for two of us, mostly because I had tasted so much of it during preparation that I didn't need a very big serving. After reading the Floating Islands P&Q, I decided to follow steph (whisk/spoon)'s lead by making and poaching the meringues first and then use the leftover poaching milk to make the creme anglaise.
Some people can whip up a meringue like it's a walk in the park, but not me. For me whipping egg whites is a Big Deal, especially when the meringue is going to be formed into an island that then must poach in simmering milk.
To successfully whip egg whites, the mixing bowl and implements must be spotlessly clean. The day I made this recipe I was more scrupulous about cleanliness than I've been since I brought my firstborn home from the hospital, and even then I realized that a little dirt was probably good for her. But not with egg whites. Even a speck of wayward grease or foreign matter is liable to lead to certain meringue demise.
The next hurdle is to beat the whites long enough that they are fluffy and full of air, but not so long that they become dry, which is a sign of over-mixing and spells bad news for meringues. I was so worried about this that I may have under-beat my whites just a bit.
Forming the islands is where the rubber hits the road. According to Dorie, there are two options: the rough volcanic island and the manicured oval island. I'll leave it to you to guess the classification of my islands.
When I think of "manicured" real estate I think of precisely-maintained lawns or shrubs. I think of golf courses. Turns out I'm not so much the manicured type. Here's my front yard:
And the ornamental shrub by my front door:
With this track record, I wasn't about to try for manicured meringue islands. No matter what I used to scoop the meringue, that implement became the meringue's best buddy, and the two had to be forcibly separated. There was absolutely no way that the meringue was going to go back and forth between two spoons. I ended up using an old-school oval ice cream scoop (not a disher) and pried the meringue out and into the hot milk.
...and this is what it looked like after a trim.
I poached my islands for about 2-3 minutes per side.
At this stage, dessert did not look promising - the bottom of the milk kept trying to scorch and the top kept skinning over. I was busy skimming milk skin and peeling it off of the meringues. Meanwhile the poaching liquid was fast disappearing (even though I added extra). After straining the poaching milk, I had just under half of what I needed for making the creme anglaise.
Dorie says to lay out a clean towel next to the stove, but then never reveals the purpose of the towel. I figured I'd park my poached islands there after they cooked. What's better than a nice clean towel after a dip in a warm milk bath?
I wonder if the French ever have to make their creme anglaise twice because the first time it scrambled? Hmm? Well, I did. Dorie says the eggs may take 10 minutes to cook. I was pulling up a stool to the counter to get comfy while I stirred, when my custard reached the proper consistency - after about 2 minutes, or even less. I was so surprised that I just stood and looked for a second, and in that time the eggs scrambled ever so slightly. It absolutely would not strain through the fine mesh strainer.
Luckily I was making a half batch, so I only wasted 3 egg yolks on the first attempt. (And the custard still tastes great, but just has a crazy texture.)
creme anglaise, take 2:
I had used up all of my large-graded eggs, so I turned to the eggs from the farm box. These are ungraded and tend to be smaller than large eggs from the store. I think this worked in my favor, to slow the thickening process, as the proportion of egg to milk was smaller. It still went pretty quickly - maybe 6 minutes, and I got it into the strainer not a minute too soon. In fact, the custard in the bottom of the pan was just starting to scramble. My creme stayed pretty much in liquid form even after it cooled.
There was absolutely no way I was going to tackle the (thankfully) optional homemade caramel for this recipe. Meringue and custard were enough for one afternoon, without having to deal with molten sugar also. So it was bare desert islands for us.
I drizzled one serving of the islands with some cranberry syrup that I made by simmering some cranberry liquid that I'd reserved from another recipe. I knew that we would prefer the flavor of the unadorned vanilla version, but couldn't resist making one in Valentine colors.
I had sampled the various components as I cooked them. The meringue was good - light and not too sweet. The custard was also good - rich but not decadently so. But this was not enough to write home about. I could only hope that when tasted together the meringue and the custard would combine for a total experience beyond the sum of the individual parts. And they did. This is a delicate yet delicious dessert.
My husband loved it, giving it a rating of 9 out of 10. I liked it too, and will freely admit to licking the empty creme anglaise bowl before sticking it in the dishwasher. I told my husband that I wouldn't be making it again, unless he were to specifically request the island dessert. Just too odd. And time consuming.
I have no doubt that many of my fellow bakers found this one to be easy, and produced precisely manicured islands swimming in a perfect anglaise sea, topped with gossamer caramel strands. You can find out by visiting the TWD blogroll and clicking on each baker's blog. You can find the recipe on page 401-402 of Dorie's book Baking From My Home to Yours, or on Shari's post.