I ate my first Floating Island at a top chefs’ dinner in 1985. The dish was the dessert course at a meal cooked by some of Europe’s greatest chefs. Even now, I can remember the chefs gathering (over many glasses of champagne – most of them were French) to discuss the menu for the evening. There were several Michelin Three Star chefs, including the great Pierre Troisgros, Jean Lameloise, Jean-André Charial, Pierre Romeyer and Eckart Witzigmann. There were famous Two Star chefs too: Michel Rostang and Alain Dutournier.
After selecting a very French menu for the dinner (Fish in Saffron Sauce, Civet de Poulet etc.), Pierre Troisgros instructed the chefs to cook what he called ‘Iles Flottantes’ (French for Floating Island) for the dessert.
I still recall the pudding. It consisted of a custard sauce in which there floated little lumps of egg white.
Given the standard of the rest of the meal (the chefs were phoning it in so the food was pretty bad), I was not surprised to find the pudding course entirely unmemorable. There was nothing wrong with it. It just wasn’t very good or at all special.
Chastened by that experience, I avoided Floating Islands for the next couple of years. If the world’s best chefs couldn’t make them taste very good, then what was the point of the dessert?
Then, in the early 1990s, somebody ordered me a Floating Island at a simple bistro in Paris. The dessert was a revelation. At the base was a lake of freshly made Crème Anglaise (what you and I call custard), tasting of milk, cream and orange egg yolks. Floating on the lake was a giant iceberg of the whitest and fluffiest meringue I had ever eaten. Biting into the meringue was like biting into the sweetest, most delicate snow. It was, I decided, going to be my favourite dessert from now on.
And so it has remained (edging out bread and butter pudding and even an airy hot soufflé). Except that I haven’t had the chance to eat as many Floating Islands as I would have liked. Most chefs consider it a boring, old-fashioned dessert not worthy of their talents, and spend their time devising new riffs on expensive chocolate (isn’t it odd how they all want to brag about using Valrhona or Amedei or some other obscenely-priced chocolate on their menus?) or making silly little pastries. Real puddings, like the Floating Island, rarely hold their interest.
One of the few places you can still be reasonably certain of finding a Floating Island, however, is France. The French have two names for it. Oeufs à La Neige translates as Snow Eggs which is a good description of the taste of the dessert. And IIes Flottantes translates as Floating Island.
Some chefs make a distinction in that a single iceberg of meringue is called Ouef à La Neige while the kind of thing the Three Star chefs cooked in 1985, with three or four little blobs of meringue on a puddle of custard gets called Floating Island. But basically, as far as I can tell, the names are used interchangeably for the same pudding depending on the chef’s personal preference. (There is also – according to Larousse Gastronomique – a completely different dessert made with slices of sponge cake that is also called Floating Island, which adds to the confusion).
The French do not regard the Floating Island as a haute cuisine dish. (The Three Star chefs were phoning it in when they made it their dessert course at our dinner and refused to do anything more elaborate). It is a bistro dish, found in small restaurants where the owners cook themselves. When Michelin-starred chefs offer it on their menus, they usually feel the need to tart it up by adding berries or some other variation and then make the point that it was cooked this way by their mothers or grandmothers by way of explanation/apology. Some – like Raymond Blanc – are honest enough to concede that it is a great pudding, far better than most of the poncy desserts that Michelin-starred chefs have created. Blanc even says that he hopes that it will be the dessert at the last supper he ever eats.
One reason why haute cuisine chefs do not bother with Floating Island is that it is relatively easy to make – for a chef anyway. (I would slash my wrists in the kitchen if you asked me to cook it.) While researching this article, I looked up as many Floating Island recipes as I could find. They were all broadly the same. The dish has three components. The first is the custard. The only point of difference between chefs is in the consistency of the custard. Some say it should be thin. Others incline to my view that it should be a relatively thickish sauce so that it forms a contrast to the lightness of the meringue.
The second component is the egg. All recipes advise the same thing: beat the egg whites till stiff and add sugar. The point of divergence is the next step. In one set of recipes, you poach the egg whites for a few minutes in either water or milk. Another set of recipes requires you to put the whites in the oven.
The third component is the value addition. Do you add a layer of caramel? Some praline perhaps? Some fresh fruit flavours? Chocolate, even? Depending on which value addition you choose, the recipe can vary.
But otherwise, it is the same straightforward method: make a custard, poach (or bake) beaten egg whites and then add Something Else for variety. You can see why fancy chefs don’t find it particularly challenging.
While the Floating Island is still easy enough to find in France, it is hard to get elsewhere. The only places in England that serve it are old-fashioned restaurants run by French chefs. Raymond Blanc does it at the Manoir and Michel Roux offers a variation at Le Gavroche in the summer. And that’s about it. Otherwise, you really have to search for the pudding.
But two years ago I discovered an incredible Floating Island at the unlikeliest of places. Coffee Beans by Dao is a chain of Thai restaurants that serves excellent versions of the local cuisine at reasonable prices. The branch I go to (at Soi Ruamrudee – I am not willing to vouch for the other branches) also has a counter that sells cakes, desserts and biscuits to either eat on the premises or to take away.
My guess is that the desserts are made in a central commissary somewhere in Bangkok and then dispatched to the chain’s branches all around the city. And I am happy to concede that there is nothing particularly fancy about the puddings. (They are not going to give Pierre Hermé sleepless nights).
But here’s the thing: they are cheap and delicious. I would gladly eat those desserts over anything produced at a fancy French patisserie. In particular, I love the crème caramel, the banoffee pie and the cheesecakes and I stay awake at nights thinking of the utterly and completely wonderful Floating Island.
You can get an excellent riff on the Coffee Beans by Dao Floating Island at the new On The Waterfront on the grounds of Delhi’s Aman Hotel. (They also do a brilliant bread and butter pudding, but that’s another story). I’ve ordered it each time I’ve gone (and that’s something like six times already!) and I sometimes think I only go there to eat the Floating Island.
You also get an upmarket Floating Island at Delhi’s Le Cirque. The food at is usually good but that is because of chef Mickey Bhoite’s determination to lighten Le Cirque’s leaden recipes. When it comes to desserts, alas, the restaurant sticks too closely to the heavy-handed traditions of the original in New York where I imagine each recipe begins with these worlds: “Take a classic French dessert. Now, make it as stodgy as possible…”
But if you can’t get to any of these places, don’t worry. You are probably a better cook than I am (and I am the world’s worst cook) so it should be easy enough for you to make your own Floating Island. Try the recipes I’ve included, and cook it yourself.
You are going to love it!The Le Gavroche Floating Island
This is the recipe from one of London’s best regarded old establishment French restaurants. They serve it on the summer menu when strawberries are in season.
100g sugar or to taste
6 egg whites
340g caster sugar
300g caster sugar for caramel and poaching liquid
To make the strawberry compote, simply sprinkle a little sugar over some washed and hulled strawberries. The amount of sugar depends on the sweetness of the berries. Bring this to the boil, then immediately take off the heat, cover, and leave to cool.
Beat the egg whites with a whisk until frothy, then add 340g caster sugar. Continue to whisk until firm and smooth. Using a big kitchen spoon dipped in cold water, scoop out a big
island of meringue and plunge the spoon into simmering sweetened water. The island should come off the spoon and poach in this liquid.
Carry on doing this until all the egg whites are used, not forgetting to flip the island over after 3-4 minutes to cook on both sides. Once cooked, gently take the islands out of the liquid with a slotted spoon. Place on a rack to cool and drain. When cold, pour freshly made caramel over the top – simply heat some sugar in a heavy pan until liquid and golden.
To serve, place some compote in each bowl, followed by Crème Anglaise flavoured with vanilla, and finally the caramel-coated floating islands.
The Leela’s Floating Island
This is pastry chef Sayed Alam’s own recipe. It is not the leaden Le Cirque recipe from the same hotel.
125ml fresh milk
125ml fresh cream
5 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod (optional)
Scrape seeds off vanilla bean halves into a heavy small saucepan, add beans, milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover and stand for five minutes.
Whisk egg yolks and caster sugar for about two minutes or until thick. Gradually whisk in warm milk mixture, stir over low heat until custard thickens and runs down the back of a spoon. Strain custard into small bowl, cover and chill for at least three hours to set.
100ml egg whites
50g caster sugar
200g fresh milk
40g castor sugar
Pinch of salt
Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in a large bowl until foamy, add a pinch of salt and beat until whites hold soft peaks. Add sugar one tbsp at a time, beat until whites are stiff and fluffy.
Scoop some meringue (about the size of an egg) onto a large oval spoon. Then, using another large spoon, gently transfer the meringue from spoon to spoon, and drop the meringue into the milk.
Shape two or three meringues, dropping each into milk, simmer for one minute. Using a heatproof rubber spatula, turn meringues over the milk. Simmer for another minute.
Repeat the process, shaping and then poaching six meringues. Transfer to a waxed-paper-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to three hours.
From HT Brunch, May 6
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