Meringue floating on crème anglaise – this is the composition of this simple and light dessert of French origin. In Europe it’s known by different names: in France it’s called oeufs à la neige or île flottante – the latter is the source of the English name -, in Spain its name is isla flotante, in Germany Scnee-Eier, in Hungary, Austria and Rumania it’s known as bird’s milk (madártej).
Eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla – that’s all you need to make floating islands (I often add lemon zest, too, as it makes the custard fresh). The quality of the custard depends on the number of eggs. Half liter of milk needs 5-7 egg yolks so that the custard becomes silky and has the right consistency. The ideal cooking temperature of crème anglaise is between 82-85°C, this is the reason why it’s recommended to cook it in a double boiler. It must not be hotter otherwise the final outcome will be scrambled eggs instead of custard.
But don’t push the panic button if you don’t have a kitchen thermometer, you can easily check the custard’s consistency: it’s ready when, if you lift the wooden spoon from the mixture and draw a line with your finger across the back of it, the line remains distinct.
Beaten egg whites can be cooked in milk or water, or in the microwave oven. This latter process is preferred by many chefs because it’s much easier and faster. In this case you can decide on cooking the egg white foam in portions by putting 3-4 balls at a time on a plate, or placing the whole amount of foam in a big microwave-safe bowl. The bowl has to be bigger than the volume of the beaten egg whites because during cooking the meringue grows big and emerges from the bowl.
- 500 ml (~2 cups) whole milk
- seeds of a vanilla bean
- 5 eggs
- 4 tbsp sugar
- pinch of salt
- zest of a half lemon
Add vanilla seeds to the milk and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the milk cool to room temperature.
Separate whites and yolks of eggs. Place the yolks in a metal bowl, add 3 tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, lemon zest and beat until thick and pale yellow in color. Pour milk, in a fine stream, into egg yolks while beating them continuously. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and cook, stirring constantly, until it forms a custard thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 20-25 minutes. Don’t overcook otherwise eggs will scramble. Spoon the custard into small glass bowls, let it cool to room temperature.
In a big microwave-safe bowl beat the egg whites with 1 tablespoon of sugar until shiny and stiff. Place the bowl in the microwave oven and cook on the 850W setting for 80 seconds. The egg white foam balloons and puffs into meringue. Scoop meringues onto the custard, let them cool, then refrigerate before serving.