After years of neglect, a beloved French dessert has come back.
Ile flottante -- floating island -- has an elemental quality: Soft, milk-poached meringues float on a sea of creme anglaise (vanilla custard sauce); caramel is drizzled over all. The ingredients couldn’t be more basic: eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla. The meringues are so soft, and the creme anglaise so lightly sweet, it’s like eating a dream.
The dessert has been a fixture at Mimosa since it opened on Beverly Boulevard in 1997, but now you also can find it on the menu at Lilly’s French Cafe & Wine Bar in Venice and frequently at Cafe Beaujolais in Eagle Rock; Chloe in Playa del Rey offers it now and again. And people are cooking it too: A friend reports she was served ile flottante at a recent alfresco lunch in Beachwood Canyon.
Both Cafe Beaujolais and Angelique Cafe in L.A. have included ile flottante on their menus today in honor of Bastille Day. The reason? “It’s very beautiful, very simple, " says Eric Ulder, owner of Cafe Beaujolais. “Not many people do it anymore, [yet] it’s super-classic.” In fact, the dish has been around even longer than July 14, 1789 -- in “The Diner’s Dictionary,” John Ayto reports that Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1771, “At dinner had a floating island.”
Any pastry chef worth his or her sugar knows how to whip up an ile flottante, and many will prepare it even if it’s not on their menu. La Cachette, L’Orangerie and Angelique Cafe in L.A.; Melisse in Santa Monica; and Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe all make floating islands on request. Call a day in advance and ask. Otherwise, keep your fingers crossed, and ask when you order.
Or go ahead and make it yourself. As elegant as it is, it’s also wonderfully simple.
Make the caramel sauce ahead of time, then prepare a creme anglaise. To form the islands, whip egg whites and sugar into stiff peaks. Spoonful by spoonful, drop the meringue into simmering milk to poach. Ladle chilled creme anglaise into soup plates, drop two or three islands onto it, then lace with caramel.
“It takes five minutes,” Ulder says. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. In any case, it’s a sweet reward for a little effort.