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A floating island is a traditional French dessert with a unique, artistic presentation. Made primarily of egg whites, floating islands are meringue-based puffs that sit on a “sea” of custard sauce. Depending on the recipe, a floating island, also known as oefs a la neige or ile flottante, is a light but interesting dessert that can be relatively low in calories.
The classic floating island is created by filling a shallow dessert bowl with vanilla-flavored custard, then setting down the meringues to create the appearance of islands. A single-serving dessert may have one or several islands, depending on the size of the meringues. The islands are sometimes drizzled with caramel or nuts for a finishing touch.
The creamy base on which the islands sit is typically some form of custard, often a basic cream anglaise. This thin custard is created by whisking egg yolks with granulated or caster sugar, then slowly adding hot milk until the concoction thickens. Cream anglaise is often flavored with vanilla extract or rum, but for a truly authentic taste, a split vanilla bean is added to the milk as it heats, then removed before serving. Using this type of recipe rather than a prepared custard mix or cornstarch-thickened recipe is preferable for making a floating island, since the cream anglaise will remain thin, allowing the meringues to float on top.
The meringues that form the islands require some patience and careful cooking to assemble. To make traditional islands, egg whites and sugar are whipped together until stable peaks form. A stand mixer can be a huge benefit during this stage, as it may take quite a while to reach the desired consistency. Once formed, the batter is dropped by the spoonful into the hot milk used for the custard, which will poach the islands. To make a more robust, puffier version, the meringues can also be baked in the oven for about an hour on a very low heat. Cooking the meringues in the oven allows them to be made a day or two ahead of time, which can save precious cooking time on the day of serving.
In modern desserts, a floating island is served on top of the custard, but some 19th century recipes actually call for the custard to be poured over the meringues instead. This method creates a more blended flavor, and may be easier to eat. Other variations on the traditional presentation include serving the islands on a bed of fresh fruit, such as berries, instead of the custard. A fruit-based version can help cut down additional calories.
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