Thursday, 12 March 2015

Floating Islands

I honestly think Floating Islands might, just possibly, be my favourite dessert… EVER!

To describe this dessert in words does not do it full justice, because it is only by eating it that you can fully appreciate how wonderful it is in its simplicity! Gently poached and fluffy white meringues are placed on a puddle of chilled, vanilla-flavoured crème Anglaise. Lightly toasted flaked almonds are scattered on top and everything is finished off by a drizzle of hot, slightly bitter caramel which sets immediately on touching the meringues and chilled custard to create a pleasing crunch against the soft creaminess of the rest of the dessert. For something that contains so few ingredients, it is truly delicious!
Although there are two or three processes involved, this really isn’t a difficult dessert to make and it is worth doing as it looks so pretty when it is finished and ready to serve up; a perfect dish to serve at the end of a rich meal when you want something with a sweet edge without being heavy to eat.
The dish may be served without the addition of the toasted nuts and the caramel, but for me their inclusion elevates this dish into something that is sublime.
I remember the very first time that I ever tasted Floating Islands many years ago. My Aunt Barbara had just bought her first house and had invited me, along with my Mother, Grandmother and other Aunt, Patricia to Sunday dinner in her new home. I can’t recall what she served as a starter or main course, but I do remember the dessert – Floating Islands! I had been used to eating baked meringue in Pavlova form as it had long been a family favourite, but I had never eaten poached meringues before. Served with the chilled custard, I thought they were absolutely divine and longed to eat them again.
I made a version of Floating islands during the semi-finals of MasterChef Ireland and whilst they weren’t perfect and I was under a huge amount of pressure competing against three other very talented cooks, it reminded me of how much I loved them. Since then I have tried out a number of different recipes and after a lot of tweaking and adjustments, this is the one that I am most happy with.
Although the dish is sweet, it shouldn’t be TOO sweet and I found that many of the recipes that I tried included far too much sugar, so I cut back on this a little, where possible. Although you can add vanilla paste or a good quality vanilla extract to flavour the crème Anglaise custard, I recommend using the seeds of a vanilla pod. I was recently given a package of plump, fragrant vanilla pods by one of the many wonderful people that I have got to know through writing this blog, appearing on MasterChef Ireland and tweeting on Twitter. These vanilla pods were brought back by the beautiful Brinda when she visited Mauritius this past Christmas… so Brinda, this recipe is for you, in grateful acknowledgement and appreciation of the thoughtful gift that you gave me.


Crème Anglaise:
400ml whole milk
100ml single cream
1 vanilla pod, halved lengthways and seeds scraped out
5 large egg yolks
60g caster sugar
5 large egg whites
125g caster sugar
500ml milk
500ml water
To finish:
100g caster sugar
50g flaked almonds, toasted in a moderate oven or dry frying pan for about 5 minutes until light golden brown


Crème Anglaise:
1. Place the milk, cream, the vanilla seeds and pod into a medium sized saucepan and set over a moderate heat. Bring up to the boil. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks and caster sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk together until pale and fluffy.
2. Once the milk has just reached boiling point, remove from the heat and scoop out the vanilla pod. (Separately, this can be allowed to dry out and placed in a jar of sugar to impart a gently vanilla flavour to the sugar which can then be used when baking cakes etc.) Pour the hot milk in a steady stream onto the eggs and sugar, whisking all the time until everything is well incorporated.
3. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and heat gently over a low temperature, stirring all the time, to ensure that the eggs do not scramble. After about 10 minutes, the custard should have thickened slightly – enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and place into a clean bowl. Allow to cool and then refrigerate until ready to use.
4. Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl and whisk together using a hand-held electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time mixing well after each addition until all the sugar has been incorporated and you have a thick, glossy meringue.
5. Meanwhile, place the milk and water into a wide saucepan with low sides. Bring up to simmering point and then allow to simmer very gently.
6. Using two large serving spoons shape quenelles out of the meringue mixture and place one at a time into the poaching liquid, turning them after about 4 minutes and poaching them on the other side. (Do not allow the poaching liquid to boil as the heat will be too intense and the meringues will expand too much and then collapse).
7. Poach the meringues in batches, fitting four or five into the saucepan at a time, depending on the size of the pan used. When poached, remove with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a wire rack placed over some disposable kitchen paper. (This mixture will make approximately 12 poached meringues).
To finish:
8. Pour some chilled crème Anglaise into a shallow dish and place 2 poached meringues on top of the custard in each dish. Scatter over the toasted flaked almonds and set the dishes aside while you make the caramel.
9. Place the sugar in a small saucepan with 1tblsp of water over a moderate heat and allow the sugar to dissolve. Once the sugar has dissolved, you can increase the heat and allow to bubble away until a dark caramel starts to form. Remove from the heat and very carefully, using a teaspoon, drizzle some of the caramel over the meringues in each dish. Serve.
Serves 6-7.