The first dessert that came to my mind when Tara of Seven Spoons announced the Sugar High Friday 31 theme Shades of White was this quintessential French bistro dessert: Iles Flottantes or Floating Islands.
The choice was obvious for me on many levels. The dessert itself is composed of pillowy soft white meringue set on a pool of soft almond cream colored vanilla bean speckled custard sauce, also known as creme anglaise.
The main reason however spuns from a conversation I had many years ago with my grandmother, Paulette. The village where my parents and grandparents reside now is the traditional French village where the church sits prominent in the middle of the town center, surrounded by local artisan shops, pastry shops, a couple of cafes and in our case located close to the "chateau". I disgress...
We are neighbors (literally) so one day we were going to get bread at the bakery we passed the church while a wedding was taking place. The bride and groom were just coming out and my grandmother reacted the way she always did in that case, she frowned and mumbled...She was a modern woman in many ways and was aware that most brides knew pre-marital sex, but as a true product of her generation it was inconceivable that the bride would wear white. Wedding white or pure white as she would say was a badge of honor (slightly tinted with envy I think) for women her age.
That particular day, I did not feel like letting her get in a bad mood over this so I decided to play with her and indulge her sweet tooth: "If not white, and definitely not red, then what shades of white would be allright to wear for a wedding dress?" We kept on walking while describing shades of pale almond creme anglaise taffeta, caramel speckled meringue petticoat, nutty beige creme dacquoise undergarnment (she surprised me with this one), soft pink marshmallow lipstick, champagne veil and vanilla creme shoes. Gosh, did we make ourselves hungry while getting to the shop! She stopped right in front of the bakery and exclaimed: "Iles Flottantes is a dessert fit for a bride, in all its shades of white and soft meringue!"
Floating Islands are indeed a staple dessert in French households and bistros/cafes. They are easy to make, do not require a whole lot of time and make for a show stopping presentation. They are so light and airy that it makes them the perfect dessert choice during the warmer months or at the end of multi-course dinner. The meringue is almost always drizzled with caramel, and out of respect for the traditional I give you the steps to do so, but when you don't feel like messing around with hot sugar syrup, a simple topping of toasted nuts (I used pistachios) is perfectly fine. The meringues are poached into hot milk, which helps preserve their texture and form while you put everything together.
Floating Islands - "Iles Flottantes":
For the creme anglaise:
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 whole vanilla bean, split or 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Heat the milk with the vanilla bean to boiling point. In the meantime, in a bowl whisk the sugar and egg yolks until thick and pale. Slowly pour in some milk to temper the yolks, whisk and pour the remaining milk. Stir. Pour the whole batter back in the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat until it coats the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
For the meringue islands:
2 cups milk
4 egg whites
Spread a clean kitchen towel on your counter near the stove and have a large slotted spoon nearby.
In a large saucepan, heat the milk to a simmer over low heat in a large saucepan.
Whip the egg whites to a soft meringue and slowlt incorporate the sugar, one tablespoon at a time until you get a stiff , satin like and glossy meringue.
Using an ice cream scoop ar a large spoon, form rounds of meringue. Gently lower them down into the milk, without overcrowding the pan. Poach the meringues one minute on each side. With the slotted spoon, remove them from the milk and lay them down on the kitchen towel.
When all are poached. Put them on sheet pan lined with baking paper and refrigerate one hour.
Divide the creme anglaise among 6 dishes, top with the meringue islands and drizzle some caramel on top or sprinkle with toasted nuts.
For the caramel: (optional and right before serving)
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
In a heavy saucepan, stir the sugar and water together and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook until the caramel gets golden brown. Remove from the pan and let it cool a little. Spoon over the meringues.