Iles Flottantes or Floating Island is a classic French dessert consisting of a poached meringue floating in a sea of crème anglaise as the name suggests it. It is known but not overwhelmingly popular in North America while it is much appreciated until today in France and can be found on the menu of most bistros there. It’s origins are considered to lie with the French countryside cooking tradition even though it is in my view one pf the most elegant and yet fuss free dessert you can surprise your dinner guest with.
Ingredients for the Crème Anglaise:
6 eggs yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk, scalded
1 Tbs corn starch
1 tsp vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean
1 tsp cognac
For the meringues:
4 eggs whites at room temperature
4 Tbs confectioners sugar
pinch of cream of tartar
pinch of salt
For the caramel sauce:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water, divided
toasted sliced almonds
Make the Crème Anglaise: Scald the milk with the vanilla bean if using, over medium low fire, don’t allow it to boil. In a medium bowl, beat the yolks and sugar until pale, whisk in the corn starch (think of it as an insurance policy, corn starch significantly lowers your chances of failure). While still whisking slowly pour the milk into the yolks. Transfer to a clean tick bottomed pot and cook over medium low fire while constantly stirring until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Whatever you do, DO NOT LET IS BOIL.Transfer to a glass bowl or measuring cup, if using vanilla extract stir it in now together with the cognac. Place a peace of cling paper directly over the surface of the crème anglaise to prevent if from building a skin and chill it for al least 1 hour.
Make the Caramel Sauce: Combine the sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a small pot and bring it to a fast boil. NEVER STIR the caramel or it will crystalize and you would need to start over. Instead, swirl the pot to combine. Cook until it turns deep amber color. Pull away from the fire and add 1/4 cup of water, swirl again to combine. Put it back on the fire and heat until it is about to start boiling again. Let the caramel sauce cool completely before using it.
Make the Meringues: Brush 6 small ramekins or expresso cups with neutral oil such as canola and set aside. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and the salt for 45 seconds or until frothy. Add the sugar spoon by spoon, increase the speed to high and beat until the meringues mixture is glossy and forms hard peaks, be careful not to overbeat it or the meringues will collapse. Fill the expresso cups or ramekins to the rim, making sure there is no air trapped inside. Set your microwave oven to 750 watts and cook each cup of meringue for 8 to 10 seconds. The meringue will rise about 20% of its volume above the rim of the cup and you should watch it and stop the microwave before it starts to deflate. You will have enough of the mixture to be able to experiment with the first meringue. After removing it from the microwave, gently tip it out of the cup over a plate lined with paper towel, using a knife to help release it if necessary. Repeat this with all 6 cup, then refill them again without oiling the cups and cook the second batch of meringues.
Plate and Serve: Divide the chilled crème anglaise between the 6 plates gently place 2 meringues in each plate, sprinkle with toasted almonds and drizzle with the cold caramel sauce. Serve immediately.
Tips: Prepared this way, the meringues are more stable than if cooked in the oven as some recipes suggest, and much easer to make than if poached in milk, as some other recipes suggest. You can make the crème anglaise and the meringues in the morning and keep them in the fridge until dinner time, they will be fine even the day after. If you find yourself with left over meringue mixture, pipe it into bitesize roses over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, cook for 2.5 hours at 90C/180C and you will have some fresh classic meringues to serve with tea.The caramel sauce could be replaced by a high quality dark honey, in case you are short of time.
Wine Suggestions: I like to serve my Iles Flottantes with a glass is good Sauvignon Blanc.