During quarantine, I have been baking quite a bit. Since I was mostly chilling at home, I figured I could give myself some pastry practice. I’ve made scones, cupcakes, cakes, and more. I mostly baked to work through the stress of this difficult time, making myself feel better with a little sugar.
I recently reached a point where I started making things in the kitchen just for the hell of it, because I had the time and was bored. I got out my pasta roller and made pappardelle with pesto sauce that I painstakingly crafted in the mortar and pestle. This meal felt like it took forever to make, but I was so satisfied at the end.
Prior to quarantine, I had never made a creme anglaise for the sake of making a creme anglaise. It’s one of those old-school French pastry techniques you don’t see often in everyday desserts. When done well, creme anglaise can add a lovely texture and flavor when poured over fruit or a sponge cake.
Creme anglaise is a primary element in the French dessert île flottante, or floating island. Île flottante is a dessert where a poached meringue is “floating” on creme anglaise. The meringue should be light and fluffy, like a soft, pillowy marshmallow, while the creme anglaise should be smooth and creamy.
So yes, I decided to make my first ever île flottante, because why not make meringues sitting on a bed of creme anglaise for just myself to enjoy. I knew this was the right time to try this recipe for île flottante from NYT Foods when I saw that fresh cherries are now in season.
I’ve only ever seen île flottante on cooking competition shows. A chef pulls out this dish during dessert rounds when they want to show off their classic French technique. In theory, the dish should not be overly difficult. However, there are several elements requiring great technique. So, nailing all the elements in a composed dish can be a challenge. I often see chefs in these competitions fail to properly execute this dessert.
Being my first time making this, I ran into a couple snags in the process. I almost didn’t have a creme anglaise. The recipe said to use a double boiler to heat the custard until it thickened enough to coat a spoon. I assume this is to avoid heating the custard too quickly and thickening it too much. However, I stood there stirring for over 20 minutes, but nothing happened. My custard was still soup. Just when I was about to give up on the process, I thought I might try heating gently over direct heat. Fortunately, my custard did thicken using this technique.
With a successful creme anglaise at last chilling in the fridge, I worked on my meringues. When whipping together meringues, I was mesmerized by the fluffy, white, shiny cloud that formed in the mixer, as I always am when making meringues. I love watching the science of baking in action!
This was my first time ever poaching a meringue. I had to use my instincts to figure out when the meringues were done. They need to be firm to the touch. I must admit I was really getting into the whole process, pretending I was making these for some esteemed guest, instead of just me in my pajamas.
I carefully plated my dessert. I ladled the creme anglaise and gently laid down a meringue, finishing with ta drizzle of the cherries in syrup. I was actually quite impressed with myself. This did not look like a dessert that came out of my apartment kitchen. I would have been rather pleased if this dessert had been served to me at a restaurant.
I loved how all the textures and flavors molded together. The meringues were light and fluffy, but alone did not have much of a flavor and were not very sweet at all. When combined with the sweet cherries and creme anglaise, it was a very pleasant bite. The recipe called for cardamom pods to be steeped in the milk used for the creme anglaise. Cardamom is one of those flavors where I couldn’t exactly describe it, but when I tasted the creme anglaise, I clearly identified the cardamom, adding a complex flavor to this dish.
While I did enjoy this dessert a lot, I didn’t want to eat six servings. I also didn’t think the meringues would hold up very well over time. So, I was trying to think of what to do with all my leftover creme anglaise.
I hilariously had this thought that I could get some ice cream and pour some of the creme anglaise on top, but something didn’t feel quite right about that. Here’s how the thought process went: “That doesn’t seem too appealing. It would be like pouring melted ice cream on top of ice cream…wait…oh that’s right! Creme anglaise is ice cream base. I knew that!”
So, I decided I’d make ice cream with the left over creme anglaise. I mixed the leftover syrup from the cherries into the creme anglaise, but I reserved the cherries separately. Chunks of fruit should not go into an ice cream maker. I could fold them into the ice cream after churning. Of course, I wouldn’t have ice cream right away, since I had to freeze the bucket.
Fast forward to the next evening after work, I had a lovely ice cream. The creme anglaise churned into this thick-bodied, luscious ice cream. There was some cherry flavor, but the cardamom really popped as the predominant flavor, which is why I called it cherry cardamom instead of just cherry. This may have been the best ice cream I have ever made.
While this baking experiment may have not had a purpose outside of working on technique, I can assure that no aspect of this dessert was wasted.