Updated: Feb 4, 2021
“A meringue is really nothing but a foam. And what is foam after all, but a big collection of bubbles?” -Alton Brown
What harmony that sugar can be. From the soft puffs of meringue to the silky smooth sweetness of a creme anglaise, and the crunch of caramel on top, meringue islands have a lot going on for such a simple pleasure. It is a light after-dinner dessert but is very satisfying. I truly enjoyed making these, although there are elements that can be tricky.
I have finally learned that, although sometimes used interchangeably, there is a difference between a custard, a creme patisserie, and creme anglaise. A creme anglaise, as used here for this dessert, is a pouring consistency and is more like a sauce. The difference between a creme patisserie and custard is more subtle but a custard should be a little bit more set and some recipes for custard will call for the use of cornstarch to thicken it. When making the creme anglaise for this dessert, be sure to not over thicken it by cooking it for longer. A good indication to know when it is done is by dipping the back of a spoon into the mixture, if it coats the spoon it's ready.
The meringue, like always, can be tricky as well. Like all meringue timing is everything. When to put the sugar in, how long to whip the egg whites, and then how long to bake it is crucial for getting the perfect puffs. In this recipe, I have used molds to form the meringue and put them into the oven to bake. But there is an alternative method of poaching the milk and cream in a pan.
Forming the meringue is a bit more finicky because it requires using two spoons to create an egg type shape. Keep the meringue mounds in the pan with a lid on until they are firm, without flipping them over. When the meringue is poached use the milk and cream from the pan to create the creme anglaise, and top with a spun caramel sugar rather than a cage.
Caramel can be hard to make as well. Sugar is easily burned and you have to know when the appropriate time to stir it. When putting the sugar in, let it sit until it begins to become liquified. Once enough of the sugar begins to turn a golden color it is okay to stir it. Take a spoon and dip it in the caramel to see if it is ready to create strands. Flicking the caramel around can get quite messy. While I was making my caramel cages, my dog got caught in the crossfire and had hardened caramel on one of her ears. This didn’t seem to bother her until I tried to pry it off (don’t worry she's fine, her ears are still flopping and getting into mischief).
Whichever method you choose to use, poaching meringue or using molds, or creating a caramel cage or spun sugar, the result is delicious. I prefer using the molds just because it is easier for me to tell when the meringue is cooked, and I like having them be circular with the cage of caramel on top. I hope you enjoy making this crazy concoction as much as I have, but always be mindful of roaming pets when the caramel is flying.
Ingredients for Creme Anglaise
300 ml of milk
200 ml heavy cream
½ tsp of vanilla paste
4 large egg yolks
⅔ cups of sugar
Ingredients for Meringue
3 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar
⅔ cup (75 g) of sugar
¼ teaspoon of vanilla paste
Ingredients for Caramel Cage
1 cup of sugar
For the Creme Anglaise: combine the milk and cream into a small saucepan over low heat. Add the vanilla paste and slowly bring to a simmer, then take off the heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale. Pour the milk and cream mixture into the egg mixture while whisking. Then pour the combined mixture back in the saucepan to cook on low heat.
Simmer the mixture gently for 5- 6 minutes, stirring constantly. When the creme anglaise coats the back of a spoon it is ready. (Note: It should be a pouring consistency, not too thick, without being runny.) Remove from heat and cover the surface so that a skin does not form, then leave to cool.
While the creme anglaise is cooling, start the meringue: Preheat the oven to 300°F.
In a stand mixer, begin whisking the egg whites. Slowly add the pinch of salt and cream of tartar. Continue to increase the speed and slowly add the sugar, keep at medium speed for approximately 5 minutes. Increase the speed again to high until the meringue has reached soft glossy peaks, then whisk in the vanilla paste. (Note: meringue should be glossy and firm but not too stiff. Be cautious about over whisking the meringue.)
Put some water in a pot and bring to a boil.
Spoon the meringue into the piping bag and pipe into individual round silicone molds. Level off any excess meringue with a knife.
Place the mold into a roasting tin or high sided baking sheet. Pour the boiling water into the pan and place a rack in the center. Put the mold on the rack, ensuring that the mold does not touch the water in the pan. Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until the meringue is set and firm to the touch.
Remove the meringue from the molds immediately when they come out of the oven. Place them onto a silicone sheet to cool.
Create the caramel cage: heat the sugar until it turns to liquid. When sugar begins to melt, stir lightly. Be sure to not let the sugar get too deep of a color.
Using the back of the molds, flick a spoon with the hot sugar on it back and forth to create strands that will make up the cage. Allow to cool before squeezing the sides of the molds and carefully taking off the cages.
Lastly assemble the floating islands by pouring the creme anglaise on a tray, plate, or glass. Place the round meringue “islands” in the center and place the caramel cage over the top. Serve immediately.