For the last year or two I’ve been obsessed with the idea of floating island even though I had never tasted it. It’s an old-fashioned dessert that sounded to me like pure delight: chunks of caramel-drizzled meringue in a puddle of crème anglaise. I’m neutral when it comes to meringue but figured that any dish involving a sea of crème anglaise had to be right for me.

Afraid that my dark-chocolate-loving husband would turn up his nose at the combination of vanilla custard, caramel, and fluff, last week I made it for my family in Houston. Reader, this involved a lot of time standing at the stove patiently stirring and vigilantly watching the candy thermometer. And then the meringues didn’t really succeed. My mother and I dished it up anyway. And?

“Dad is licking his plate!” my sister hollered before mom and I had even made our way to the table. Then my sister licked her plate, too. The recipe’s head note, which dad had not read, said, “Your friends will be licking their plates,” but I hadn’t taken it literally.

My own first bite was okay but did not overwhelm me with deliciousness. The crème anglaise was yummy, but the meringues did not have the right texture at all (they were more like marshmallows; I’ve tried and failed to make good meringues before, so this could be one of my cooking curses) and the caramel seemed too sweet, as if it needed a pinch of salt or longer cooking for a burnt flavor.

In sum, the long-dreamed-of floating island was a hit with half of my family, not so much with the other half. Since the crème anglaise was my favorite part, I found myself thinking I would be just as happy with a good bowl of homemade vanilla ice cream. If I do try it again, I will make the meringues according to Julia Child’s recipe in The Way to Cook (she bakes a dish full of meringue and then carves it up instead of making individual puffs), and I will not bother with the cornstarch in the crème anglaise (since I’m a fairly confident custard-maker).

About the author: Robin Bellinger recently escaped a career in book publishing, which was cutting into her cooking time. Now she's a freelance editor and can bake bread on Tuesday afternoon if she feels like it. She lives in Midtown Manhattan with her husband and blogs about cooking and crafting at home*economics.

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Essentials: Floating Island

About This Recipe

Yield:6 to 8

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups (5 ounces) sliced almonds
  • 8 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Crème Anglaise (recipe below)
  • 4 extra-large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 3/4 cups scalded milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Cognac (I skipped this; don’t like boozy desserts)
  • Seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean (optional)

Procedures

  1. 1

    Preheat the oven to 350°F.

  2. 2

    For the caramel, heat 1 1/2 cups of the sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan until the sugar dissolves. Cook over medium heat until the syrup turns a warm caramel color. Don’t stir, just swirl it in the pan. Off the heat, add 1/2 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla; be careful, for the syrup will bubble violently (I like to put the pot in the sink and pour the liquid in from above). Stir and cook over high heat until the caramel reaches 230 degrees (thread stage) on a candy thermometer. Set aside.

  3. 3

    For the praline, combine the almonds with 1/4 cup of the caramel and spread them on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the almonds are lightly browned. Allow to cool at room temperature and then break up into pieces.

  4. 4

    Lower the oven to 250°F. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

  5. 5

    For the meringues, beat the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on medium speed until frothy. Turn the mixer on high speed and add the remaining 1 cup of sugar. Beat until the egg whites are very stiff and glossy. Whisk in the remaining teaspoon of vanilla. Place large mounds of meringue on the parchment paper with soup spoons and bake for 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

  6. 6

    For serving, pour crème anglaise on the bottom of individual plates. Place a meringue or two on top of each serving, drizzle with caramel sauce, sprinkle with praline, and serve.

  7. 7

    To make a day or two ahead, leave the caramel and praline at room temperature and refrigerate the crème anglaise. Bake the meringues before guests arrive and assemble the desserts just before serving.

  8. 8

    Crème Anglaise

  9. 9

    - makes 2 cups -

  10. 10

    Adapted from Barefoot in Paris

  11. 11

    Beat the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, or until very thick. Reduce to low speed and then add the cornstarch.

  12. 12

    With the mixer still on low, slowly pour the hot milk into the eggs. Pour the custard mixture into a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thickened. The custard will coat the spoon like heavy cream. Don’t cook it above 180 degrees or the eggs will scramble.

  13. 13

    Pour the sauce through a fine strainer, add the vanilla extract, Cognac, and vanilla seeds, if using, and chill.

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