Friday, April 1, 2016

Floating Islands

I woke up a couple of days ago thinking about the dessert Floating Islands. I really don’t know why. While there are few ingredients, It’s kind of a pain to make, because there are finicky parts to the recipe. It’s definitely kind of old fashioned. But for me it brings back memories.

I have no doubt told you before that my grandmother didn’t cook, except for fudge and meatloaf (why just those? I have no idea.). My mother produced tasty, healthy meals, but I don’t know how much pleasure she took in the whole process. But for some unknown reason I have a very clear memory of the two of them working together, in the kitchen of a house we rented for only a few years, to make this dish. It wasn’t a holiday meal or anything. Maybe they had some spare time or wanted to distract themselves from other things. I think my grandmother had her own memories of the dish, and while she might not have been able to make it herself, she certainly felt free to offer opinions and instructions. Me (age 11 or so), I just kept out of their way and watched.

But what made it memorable for me was that it’s kind of a playful dish: meringue islands floating in a yellow sea of custard. (Maybe that makes it appropriate for April Fools’ Day?)

Fanny Farmer said only, make custard, spoon beaten egg whites or whipped cream on top. Uh, no. These days we kind of prefer to cook our eggs. So I turned to The Joy of Cooking, where the recipe made much more sense.

Floating Island (or Snowy Eggs)

For the Islands:

3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups [whole] milk

Separate the egg whites and yolks. Set aside the yolks.

Whip the egg whites until stiff, then beat in the sugar gradually.

Scald the milk (anybody remember how to do that? I do it in the microwave, in stages. You know it’s scalded when a thin skin forms on top. Discard the skin before using!). 

You can just see the skin
Place in on the heat but turn it down as low as it will go. Drop tablespoons of the egg white mixture onto the top of the milk and poach gently (for about four minutes), turning once. DO NOT LET THE MILK COME TO A BOIL!

Lift out the poached meringues carefully (there’s an understatement!) with a skimmer and lay them gently on a paper towels to drain.

The sea (all right, the custard)

You will still have the yolks left over from the eggs above, right? You’ll need another quarter-cup of sugar now.

In a double boiler (you do have one of those? I have my mother’s and my grandmother’s, both now definitely vintage) put the milk you’ve already scalded (still warm) in the top pan. Slowly stir in the slightly-beaten egg yolks, whisking steadily, plus 1/4 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt.

The heirloom double boilers
Put the top pan with the egg-milk mixture over lightly boiling water in the bottom half (do not let the bottom of the top pot come into contact with the water or you’ll get scrambled eggs). Stir the mixture constantly until it begins to thicken, which may take a while, then remove from the heat and let cool. Beat it occasionally to keep in smooth.

If you want, you can add vanilla, rum, or grated lemon rind for flavor now. Then pour the custard into a pretty serving dish (this will be a thin layer), cover loosely and place it in the refrigerator and chill thoroughly.

Assembling the dish

When the custard is cool, gently slip the meringue “islands” on top and return the dish to the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve it.

It’s kind of an odd dish, I must say. It’s very light, and mostly liquid, but it tastes pleasant. BTW, this recipe as given made enough for four small servings—not a lot given the effort to make it. 

There's floating involved here, right? A Turn for the Bad (County Cork Mystery #4) is still floating along happily at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


  1. Love the story and the recipe Sheila. Though I think watching you will be enough--I don't need to make it myself:)

  2. I always love to hear the stories behind a dish. It made me laugh to think out your grandmother offering your mother advise on how to proceed.

    I made this once a long time ago for a dinner party. It was a lovely, light finish to the meal, but I haven't made it since. :)

  3. I've never made this. My husband's mother used to make something called snow pudding. He had the recipe so I tried it. You make a custard like floating island but instead of meringue you made something that required gelatin--it's been awhile and I don't quite remember. Kind of the 1950s American housewife Good Housekeeping version of Floating Island. He loved it--I hated it. But I don't like jello and even though the "snow" wasn't as rubbery as jello, I still didn't like the texture. This is what the French call Oeufs a la neige right? Eggs in the snow?

  4. Isn't fascinating how our brains work? The most unlikely thing will come to the surface. I consider it rather like the "shuffle" setting on an iPod. You never know what is going to come up next!

    Great story and recipe.

  5. I have never made this nor have I tried it, but custard with egg whites? How could it not be good? I used to hang around the kitchen to lick the beaters when my mom beat egg whites. They were my favorite! Even raw!

  6. I am pretty sure my mom made this in the past, long ago. It was good. But I'm not sure I would take the tie for it. Maybe someday when I am feeling nostalgic...

  7. My apologies for not responding sooner--I was in lovely Burkbank CA with over a hundred Sisters in Crime learning how to sell our books to Hollywood. It was a bit overwhelming, and there was no time to sit in front of a computer (well, maybe if there was a book deadline), and it was a lot of fun talking with friends I don't see often (and meeting some new friends I know only via Facebook).

    This is definitely an old-fashioned recipe, and the fact that this is the first time I can remember making it says something. But it was a sort of tribute to my grandmother (I'm still puzzling about how she got through nearly 94 years without learning to cook).