Both a comfort food and a dessert!
When we were home sick from school, our mother would make us floating islands of luscious meringue in soft, spiced custard; she believed the eggs and milk provided substantial nutrition even if we were not eating much of anything at all. We just thought it was good, and the little islands were fun to play with (whether we were really sick or not). My own children and grandchildren love this as much as we did!
Mom didn’t use the rum when she gave it to us (hmm, well, at least I don’t think so…), but it adds an extra depth of flavor for the adults in the house. She did not cook the meringues for long, but scooped them into the hot liquid to gently poach. If you are afraid of lightly simmered egg whites you can use the baked method that follows, but I think they are best served soft and billowy, more like delicate clouds than crunchy islands.
Add a bit of fresh berries, a drizzle of maple liquor or rum sauce, and serve as a special dessert, or brunch starter. You can even double the batch, add additional light cream to taste and turn it into an eggnog, put it all in a punch bowl, and you have a rich and festive holiday drink. Don’t forget the nutmeg for grating on the side! I still have my mother’s nutmeg grater, one of my kitchen treasures.
2 cups local, organic whole milk
1 vanilla bean pod, sliced open
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
6 local, organic eggs, separated
1 cup superfine sugar, divided
½ tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Lots more freshly grated nutmeg for garnish
Optional but recommended: ¼ cup dark rum
Put the milk in a large, shallow saucepan. Scrape the million seeds from the vanilla bean and place them and the pod in the milk, along with the nutmeg, over low heat.
While warming, separate eggs, place whites in a bowl and beat them until frothy. Add one-half cup of the sugar and the cream of tartar (which helps to stabilize the whites, you can also add a few drops of vinegar if you have no cream of tartar) and whip to stiff peaks. Stir in vanilla extract.
In a separate bowl, beat the yolks, cornstarch, and remaining half cup of sugar. Set aside.
With an ice cream scoop, float mounds of the egg white islands into the pan, three or four at a time. Cover the pan so the islands can poach for a couple of minutes, remove the cover, turn the islands over gently, put the top back on and let poach for another minute. Don’t let it go too far. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and drain on a clean tea towel.
If I am entertaining, I might place the meringue in a piping bag with my giant star tip (the one I use to fill deviled eggs) I pipe the meringues into the simmering milk, but I do not turn them over. These are beautiful torched after you place them in the bowl of custard, and it adds a lovely flavor as well. That’s if you want to be fancy.
Add a little more milk to the pan, and heat to a simmer, but do not boil. When the milk mixture is nice and hot and steaming, add a little to the beaten egg yolks, then a little more, slowly, to temper the eggs so they don’t scramble. Once this mixture is warmed, add it back to the pan and continue to stir just until it starts to thicken, about 165 degrees, no more! You will notice a difference in texture, but don’t let them go too far or it may curdle and break. You can draw a line down the back of a wooden spoon with your finger at this stage and the track won’t fill in (that’s how Mom did it) but I use an instant-read thermometer.
Remove from heat, stir in a little more vanilla and the rum.
Serve each shallow bowl of the “sea” with an island on top and grate a little extra nutmeg for color and flavor. You can drizzle with caramel or maple syrup to garnish, or add some poached fruit or fresh berries, but I think it is best as is.
You can make the custard the day before if you like, but I think it is best served warm right after you make it. Serves four to six depending on appetite. It is quite rich.
Baked Method:If you are concerned about eating only lightly poached meringues, you can pipe them onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment, make little island-like mounds with a peak on top. Pop under a slow broiler for 5 to 8 minutes, or until set and the tops nicely browned, sort of like making a topping for a lemon meringue pie. Let cool before removing with a thin spatula to top the custard. This is actually quite pretty, although not at all how my mother made it, and certainly not traditional.
Microwave Method: Fill a piping bag with a large star tip and create one meringue on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave at high power for 4 seconds, wait a few seconds, and microwave again for another 4 seconds. Remove the plate from the microwave and use a thin spatula to remove to a holding plate. It will be firm and cooked all the way through. You can use a torch to add some color if you like.
A touch of orange! Substitute Grand Marnier for the rum, and drizzle with more when the dish is assembled. Top with either freshly, finely grated orange zest or candied orange peel.
For Eggnog: Double the batch and thin to the consistency you want with light cream or half and half. Serve chilled, or warm, in mugs, you can add the little island to each, or float them on top in a punch bowl.
Buttered Rum Sauce
This is also a great topping for ice cream, sautéed fruit, bread pudding, or a pound cake. It is very sweet, so a little goes a long ways.
In a medium saucepan, mix together a cup of light brown sugar and a cup of heavy cream. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Whisk and bring back to a boil, then cook for about five minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in 1/4 cup of dark rum.