Floating Islands-Oeufs a la Neige
"Oeufs a la Neige" does not translate directly as "Floating Islands" but actually as "Snow Eggs". On a recent trip to Turin, we had dinner at our hosts' home and a really generous guest brought this dessert. She called them "peti di signora" (lady's farts! - so much more down home than the English or French names) and she mixed the caramel into the custard cream. I made this more canonical recipe for Christmas dinner for 10 people:
THE CUSTARD CREAM:
3 cups whole milk, warmed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
In a medium saucepan, whisk yolks and sugar until thick, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in warm milk and vanilla. Put over low heat and stir constantly until thickened, about 9 minutes. Cover and chill until cold, at least 3 hours.
8 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups whole milk plus extra water if necessary
Beat egg whites in large bowl on high until just foamy. Add salt and continue beating until the whites hold soft peaks (until when you take the beaters out, they make a peak that flops over). Once you've reached the soft peak stage, start adding the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until you have incorporated it all and the peaks glossy and stiff (no more flopping). Put the milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle (no boiling!) simmer. Using 2 large soup spoons, you will make quenelles out of the meringue. Scoop about the size of 2 eggs' worth of meringue onto one of the spoons. With the other, scoop from one side and lift the meringue onto the second spoon. You are trying to make a (n American) football shape. Keep transferring the meringue from spoon to spoon until you're there. Cook about 2 at a time in the simmering milk. After about 2 minutes, flip the meringues over to cook the other side. After another 2 minutes, remove on to a baking sheet. Continue until you have used up all the meringue. If the level of the milk gets too low for the meringues to float, add boiling water to correct it. Cool covered for at least an hour and up to 3 hours.
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup water (optional)
Follow this simple recipe from "The Accidental Scientist" for foolproof caramel:
Caramelizing isn’t especially tricky. Caramelizing dry sugar is one of the easiest of the caramelizing methods. Other methods involve dissolving the sugar in water and/or adding an acid. Since melted sugar forms an extremely hot and sticky syrup, stir with great care so it doesn’t spatter.
1. Sprinkle the sugar evenly on the bottom of the saucepan. Heat it slowly over low to medium heat and you’ll notice it first begins to melt, then gradually becomes a molten syrup.
2. As it gets hotter, about 320° F, it changes to a pale, amber color. Then, within a matter of seconds, it becomes a rich, deep caramel and is at a temperature of about 338° F.
3. When it’s almost as dark as you’d like, remove the pan from the heat, as it will continue to cook slightly. If you let it get darker, or heated to 350° F, it quickly develops a bitter then burnt flavor.
Caramel option #1: Now, if you want pourable caramel, add the 1/8 cup of water, begin stirring over medium heat until you have a uniform consistency. Take off heat and let cool.
Caramel option #2: Do NOT add the water to this one. If you want an elegant-looking caramel cage decoration, invert 10 small bowls, spray the outsides of them with Pam (or other non-stick spray, or spread a bit of vegetable oil with your fingers), and take a fork, dip it into the hot caramel and drizzle it over the inverted bowls in swirls, jagged lines or whatever you fancy. These cool very quickly and can be removed easily.
Assembly: One nice thing about this dish, other than the delicious taste and not terribly fattening calorie-count is that you can make it all ahead of time. The caramel option #1 can be made the day before as can the custard. The meringues hold well for up to 4 hours in the fridge. It's the assembly that must be last minute. In 10 low bowls, pour on some custard, drop on 1 or 2 meringue quenelles and either drizzle the caramel sauce on top or place the hard caramel cage over everything. Serve with a flourish.