Americans don't make this dessert much, unhappily. It was originally a French nursery dessert called île flottante: a single "island" of meringue floating in a "sea" of crème anglaise. Oeufs à la neige is another name used, indicating many small eggs floating rather than one large one. I have had this dish often when in France (where it is more commonly found on a dessert menu than in the U.S.); they usually serve a large square island floating in the crème anglaise. It makes sense for a restaurant to make many portions in a large pan rather than individual "islands". The rare times I have found it on a menu in this country, they try to improve it with the addition of fruit; it doesn't work. This dessert is better the way it was served in the nursery: plain and simple.
Another reason I love floating island is my mother made it for us when we were children and I have her original recipe. The only change I have made over the years is I now bake the meringues; much simpler and I adore the peaks touched with a little color, which you really don't get when you poach them in milk as my mother did. If you have never tried this dessert, don't waste a minute. Make it for dessert tonight. You have all the ingredients you need in your pantry and refrigerator.Floating Island
Ingredients:4 eggs plus 4 more whites
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups half and half or whole milk
seeds from a vanilla bean (optional)
Method:Preheat your oven to 250°
Beat the whites of 8 eggs with the salt and cream of tartar until foamy. Add 1/3 cup sugar and beat until smooth, stiff and glossy. Beat in 1 teaspoon of vanilla.Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and with a large serving spoon, place 10 mounds on the parchment, making little peaks with the tops. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned. Place the "islands" in individual serving dishes or in one large one.
Make the crème anglaise: scald the milk. Beat 4 egg yolks (use the other yolks for something else) with 1/3 cup sugar until well blended. Temper the eggs with some of the scalded milk and then combine. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats a spoon. Do not allow the mixture to exceed 180° or the mixture will curdle. Pour the sauce through a strainer and add the vanilla bean seeds and 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla. (If you are not using vanilla bean seeds, increase the vanilla to 1/2 teaspoon.)
You may add a little cognac if you wish; I don't. Chill.
To serve, pour the crème anglaise over the islands and serve.
If I am having company, I sometimes like to serve a caramel sauce over it:
Mix 1 and 1/2 cups sugar with 1/2 cup water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir with a wooden spoon and boil over medium heat until it turns a caramel color. Remove from heat and add another 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla. It will bubble up, so be careful. Return to the heat and cook until it reaches 230° on a candy thermometer. Set aside until ready to use.