This recipe was given to me by my friend Nicole Manier from her mother’s cookery book. If her mother was anything like Nicole then I imagine her as a fabulously chic French lady. Nicole might have lived in London for a long-time now but she somehow still oozes Frenchness (and she makes a pretty fine suit). Her knack for mixing compassion with wickedly hilarious stories makes her the ideal lunch companion and it was after one such date that she gave me her mother’s recipe for this classic dessert.
We’d been to Pierre Koffmann’s restaurant. Nicole and Pierre come from the same small town in south-west France and after she had shared this fact with several waiters we found ourselves in the kitchen between courses meeting the great man. They rattled away reminiscences about local foods. Then later on when it was time to order dessert there was an addition to the menu: oeufs a la neige. Nicole’s face lit up. This was her favourite dessert as a child when made by her mother but she was willing to give M. Koffmann’s a go. It was later pronounced “almost as good as my mother’s”.
The terms ‘oeufs a la neige’ and ‘ile flottante’ (or even Floating Islands) are often used interchangeably for poached meringues floating on a creme anglaise with a caramel topping. Light and scrumptious. Auguste Escoffier does differentiate between the two though. In his Guide Culinaire ile flottante is booze-soaked biscuits sandwiched together with dried fruits, coated in Creme Chantilly and then floating on Creme Anglaise.
This is oeufs a la Neige as Nicole’s mother made it:
Oeufs a la Neige – serves 4
10 eggs ( 10 yolks for custard – 6 egg whites for meringue)
1 litre whole milk
2 vanilla pods split lengthways
250 icing or caster sugar for meringue
75g caster sugar for custard
100g caster sugar for caramel
50ml water for caramel
Put milk in large shallow saucepan or large frying pan with a high edge and a thick bottom, bring to the boil and reduce heat to low. Add the vanilla pods and simmer to infuse for 5minutes.
Beat 6 of the egg whites to a light peak, add sugar slowly and beat until all is absorbed and the meringue is firm.
Scoop out 12 large spoonsful of meringue and poach in the simmering milk – just a couple of maybe four at a time as they will expand. Turn them over and poach on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep on a tray. Keep the milk.
In a bowl, cream together all 10 egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Pour the boiling milk on to the mixture whisking all the time then return to the pan and heat. Stir the custard until it thickens and coats the wooden spoon (when the custard stops turning when the spoon is lifted, it is ready). Strain into the serving dish placed in a tray of ice cubes to cool it quickly. Place the meringues on top and put in the fridge for several hours.
Make the caramel: Place the sugar in a pan on low heat until it has melted and turned a brown colour; stir in the water and 20g of butter. Pour the caramel on to the meringues.
Voila! C’est délicieux!
A note about the caramel: be very careful not to burn the sugar before the water goes in. The sugar will be super-hot and there is likely to be an excitable reaction with the water. An alternative option is to put the water into the sugar from the start.
Another alternative is to skip the caramel and go the Portuguese route with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon.