Why It Works
- Slowly adding the sugar to the whipping egg whites ensures that it will dissolve properly.
- Whisking the meringue at a lower speed for longer results in a stronger, more stable foam that’s less likely to deflate.
For a long time, île flottante—or floating island—was something I only saw in vintage cookbooks and magazines. The simple, elegant dessert of baked meringue suspended in a pool of crème anglaise was supposedly a favorite of Julia Child’s and served at the famed New York City restaurant Le Cirque. From the 1960s to 1980s, île flottante and its close cousin, oeufs à la neige, seemed to be all the rage: Associated Press food editor Cecily Brownstone called ouefs à la neige a “dessert to remember” in 1966; Leo Schofield of the Sydney Morning Herald described it as a “real blockbuster” in 1983; and former New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne claimed it was his “favorite of all French desserts” in 1985.
These meringue-based desserts were popular not just at restaurants, but at dinner parties, too. Recipes for both abound in back issues of Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and newspapers across the country. At some point, île flottante and oeufs à la neige fell out of popularity. It wasn’t until I visited Paris in my early 20s that I finally saw it on the menus of bistros and brasseries everywhere; here in the United States, île flottante may be relegated to the past, but in France, the dessert is going strong.
“For the French, this dessert is not only a classic, but often a childhood touchstone,” baking expert Dorie Greenspan noted in Lucky Peach’s book All About Eggs. “In a country where people are more likely to buy their desserts from a neighborhood pâtisserie than prepare them at home, îles flottantes (floating islands) remains a mainstay in the make-at-home repertoire, in some part because it is so easy and in some part because it’s a naturally showy dessert.”
Île Flottante vs. Oeufs à la Neige
Though île flottante and ouefs à la neige have been used interchangeably by both chefs and writers, the two are—or are supposed to be—prepared differently. The only trouble is that you can find different answers about what those differences are depending on where you look. According to Claiborne, a floating island should consist of a sponge cake brushed with liqueur (like Kirschwasser) and apricot preserves that’s then layered with rehydrated currants and chopped almonds. Whipped cream goes on the side of the cake, and it’s then baked, sliced, and served with custard poured around it—no meringue in sight.
Then there are others, like the authors of The Joy of Cooking, who claim that île flottante should be made with a meringue molded and baked in a ramekin set in a water bath. Seeing these versions of île flottante is rare, though. More often than not, the dessert comes out resembling oeufs à la neige: a poached meringue nestled into crème anglaise topped with praline or a spun caramel.
“For purposes of clarity,” Richard Sax wrote in his book Classic Home Desserts, “oeufs à la neige are generally considered to be individual egg-shaped meringues—’snow eggs’—while floating island is a single large meringue afloat in a custard sea.” According to Sax, the sponge version that Claiborne speaks of is an early French version, though it’s unclear when the cake in the dessert became a meringue.
The Right Meringue for the Job
The main question for île flottante is what kind of meringue to make for it. Options include cooked meringues like Italian and Swiss meringue, which are cooked as part of the egg-beating process (either with hot syrup being poured into the eggs or warming the mixture over a hot water bath before beating it), and French meringue, which is initially made without heat but then can be cooked after. Since we have to bake our meringue in order to slice it for île flottante, it seems unnecessarily fussy to have to make a cooked meringue that then gets baked a second time anyway, so French makes the most sense here.
Making a French meringue is as simple as whisking the whites at low speed until they’re frothy, then slowly streaming in a portion of the sugar before increasing the speed of the mixer and adding the remaining sugar. For a more stable meringue, it’s better not to push the speed of the mixer too high. While faster beating reduces the time it takes for the meringue to whip up, the resulting meringue is more likely to deflate prematurely.
Once the meringue is made, it goes into a baking dish and is then briefly baked until it reaches a tender and light marshmallow-y texture, perfect for slicing and floating on the crème anglaise. You’ve likely seen meringue cookies before, where meringue is piped into little stars or swirls and baked at a low temperature for several hours until crisp. Here, though, the goal isn’t dehydration to the point of crispness, instead it’s just to set the meringue until it’s glossy and sliceable, which is why we bake it in a single mass at a slightly higher temperature and for a shorter time.
Treat Your île Flottante Like a Sundae—Ice Cream Included
Traditionally, île flottante is topped with a caramel drizzle or a nest of spun caramel, but there’s no reason you have to stop there. Given that the crème anglaise is basically a pool of melted vanilla ice cream, I like to think of île flottante as a reconfigured sundae, open to all the topping and condiment possibilities that allows. Some great options include pantry staples like crumbled cookies, toasted nuts, and fruit in various forms from dried to macerated and candied. Though crumbled amaretti cookies, candied citrus, and even chopped praline would all be delicious, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. And if you really feel like keeping things simple, you could even skip the crème anglaise and just melt a pint or two of good quality vanilla ice cream instead. It’ll be just as good—and no one will know, unless you want them to.