Eggs a la neige is a traditional French dessert created by the marriage of two classic culinary concoctions: crème anglaise and meringue. Crème anglaise is a type of custard. A custard is a mixture of eggs and milk and/or cream that can be hot or cold, sweet or savory. Most custards are desserts such as crème brulee, flan, and cheesecake. Quiche however, is a savory custard. Custards can also be a liquid or more gelatinous. The latter are fabricated by the addition of starch, such as cornstarch; the quintessential example being pastry crème. Pastry crème is used in confections such as Napoleons, cream puffs, éclairs and cream pies. Crème anglaise on the other hand, does not contain starch and is thus more fluid. It is often employed as a sauce and poured over items like cake or fruit.
Meringue is a beaten mixture of egg whites and sugar. Other flavoring agents can be added as well. Meringue is routinely baked but can also be poached, as we shall see in eggs a la neige. It can be cooked to varying degrees of firmness. A pliable meringue is used as a topping for innumerable desserts such as lemon meringue pie or baked Alaska. Alternatively, meringue can be shaped into "cookies" of infinite configurations and baked until completely firm.To make eggs a la neige, dollops of the meringue are poached in water or milk, cooled, and then rested in a pool of chilled crème anglaise.
Eggs a la neige is also known as eggs in snow, snow eggs, or floating islands. Neige means “snow” in French, hence the snowy monikers. But it is also reputed that the famous French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), named the dish after Gabrielle-Charlotte Reju, (1856-1920), a French actress whose stage name was Gabrielle Réjane. Whether Escoffier actually invented the dish is a little unclear. It’s components, custard and meringue, were well established before Escoffier’s time. Some sources credit him for their union and others claim he merely named the dish. Nevertheless, I remain confused as to how the word "neige" relates to the name of the actress.
Things become even murkier with the name “floating islands.” One thing is clear: while eggs a la neige is sometimes referred to as floating islands, technically floating islands is a different recipe. What’s the difference? Depends on who you ask. (Don't you hate that answer?)
An 18th century recipe calls for French rolls with jam or jelly to be floating in the crème. Larousse Gastronomique sites the use of sponge cake or brioche. According to another culinary text, the “islands” are composed of alcohol-soaked dessert biscuits and jam. If there’s any consensus at all, many modern floating island recipes bake a large piece of meringue, (as opposed to poaching individual pieces), and “float” that in the crème. And to make matters worse, be it eggs a la neige or floating islands, many European countries have their own incarnation of the dish. OK, enough of the magical mystery tour. Let’s get back to the point of the discussion, i.e., eggs a la neige, and review how to make custard and meringue.
The primary challenge when making crème anglaise, or any custard for that matter, is cooking but not scrambling the eggs. A little too much heat and you’re having breakfast instead of dessert. In a nutshell, (even though it’s more like in a mine field), egg yolks and sugar are whipped together and then cooked with milk or cream and flavored with vanilla. The critical elements here are:
The yolks and sugar are whipped until “ribbons” form in the mixture.
The milk/cream is heated separately at first. Do NOT boil the milk. Bring it only to a gentle simmer. If using a vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add it to the milk. If using vanilla extract add it at the very end.
Slowly pour about a third of the milk into the egg/sugar mixture, constantly whisking. Then slowly pour the egg mixture back into the primary saucepan containing the remaining milk, again constantly whisking. This is called tempering the eggs. It allows them to be slowly heated to avoid coagulation.
With the heat on low and your whisk in constant motion, cook the crème until it coats the back of a spoon, or until you can run a finger through it and create a clear path; about 5-8 minutes. If you’re using a thermometer do not go over 175 degrees. Even the low 170’s is flirting with disaster.
Strain the crème to remove any solidified bits of egg.
Pour it into a bowl with plastic wrap touching the surface, (to prevent a film from forming), and chill it.
As stated, meringue is a whipped mixture of egg whites and sugar but it’s a little more complicated than that. Beating egg whites imbibes them with air molecules, thus inflating them and producing a foam. But the air can escape and deflate the meringue. Ergo, the goal is not only producing a foam, but a stable one. Here’s a point by point guide:
Room temperature eggs will whip faster and produce greater volume than cold ones.
Ensure that there is not a trace of egg yolk in the whites when you separate the eggs. The slightest bit of fat can interfere with the whipping of the whites.
Copper bowls produce greater volume than any other material because of the chemical reactions between the copper and the egg whites.
Adding a pinch of cream of tartar (tartaric acid) enhances the stability. Use a 16th of a teaspoon per white. If not using a copper bowl, definitely use cream of tartar. Get the whites started and then promptly add the cream of tartar.
Use superfine sugar which incorporates better. You must wait for the whites to reach the “soft peak stage” which is a limp foam, before adding the sugar. Moreover it must be added a tablespoon at a time. Adding it too soon or too quickly compromises the final volume.
A pinch of salt is sometimes added for flavor. Again, wait for the soft peak stage as salt actually decreases the foam’s stability.
Continue beating the whites once all the sugar and salt is added but do not over beat them or they can curdle. Scoop out some of the meringue with the whisk and hold it up. If the peaks hold their shape, you’re done. This is the stiff peak stage.
Mix the vanilla extract in toward the end.
4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1 pint whole milk
1 vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Prepare the cream as described above and chill.
4 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
½ cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, or with a hand-held whisk, make the meringue as described above.
Heat up a large skillet of water to a gentle simmer. Place dollops of the meringue in the water.
Or for a more artistic presentation make quenelles of the meringue. A quenelle is an oval shaped dollop of food. To make them you’ll need two large tablespoons. Scoop up one generous spoonful of the meringue and work it back and forth between the spoons until a uniform oval shape is produced. Then place it in the water.
Poach the egg whites for two minutes, gently flip, and poach the other side for two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper toweling to dry. Allow them to cool to room temperature, (or place them in the fridge to completely chill).
Pour the custard into serving bowls and add portions of the poached meringue on top.
On a final note, eggs a la neige can be augmented in many different ways. All kinds of flavorings and garnishes can be added including cloves, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, caramel, liqueurs and chocolate. Various nuts can be sprinkled over it. There are even tropical versions that employ ginger, coconut and tropical fruit.
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