Tuesday, February 10, 2009
There is no denying that food associations can be very powerful. Unfortunately, I will always associate crème anglaise, a central feature of this week's TWD recipe, Floating Islands, with getting yelled at. It was the summer after I graduated from college. Life was good. I was living with some friends in a house on Fairfield Beach called the Smoking Bishop. I was working at Onion Alley, a restaurant in Westport, CT, and hanging out with my 29 year old professional snowboarder boyfriend, whom I met at work, and who was just a little bit too cool for me to tell my parents about. Onion Alley had an outdoor "roof deck" where bands would play in the summer, and sometimes I'd work behind the bar up there, serving up drinks in plastic cups. Loud music and beer in plastic cups didn't really "go with the neighborhood" -- Nancy and Audrey know what I mean -- and the nearby neighbors would occasionally call the police when things got too loud. Needless to say, this wasn't a fine dining establishment. Therefore, I always thought it was funny that we (the waitstaff) were supposed to prepare desserts by spreading a thin layer of crème anglaise on the dessert plate, adding some raspberry coulis, and then using a toothpick to draw a little raspberry design into the crème anglaise before plating the dessert. Even back then, I thought "Really? These people just had a tuna melt and fries. I don't think they'll notice if their Mississippi Mud Pie is not bedazzled with raspberry coulis dotted crème anglaise."
Anyway, most of the time I dutifully obliged and would decorate the dessert plates as directed. But there is just no rushing my art, so on busy Saturday nights when I did not have enough time to devote to the design, I would sometimes take it upon myself to skip the crème anglaise, slap the pie on a bare plate, and deliver it in all of its unadorned glory to the customers, who (shock!) never seemed to notice that anything was awry. Well, one night, Anne, the manager on duty that night, caught me walking out into the dining room with some naked desserts. She said "Oh no, Cathy, is the crème anglaise goopy again?" (it had a tendency to get kind of funky). I was completely honest and said "no, I'm just totally in the weeds right now and I don't want to keep these people waiting on their dessert."
Well, Anne threw a little hissy fit right there in the kitchen, grabbed my desserts from me, said "Cathy! If you are going to do something, do it right!" (little did I know at the time that it would be the first of many instances of me not doing things right in the dessert department), and generally made me feel like a complete slacker. Which of course I was. This incident has stuck with me all these years, because as a Seriously Boring Rule Follower, I can remember each and every time that I've gotten scolded in my life. (1) By the lunch lady when I popped a plastic sandwich bag in the lunchroom in first grade and had to stand on the yellow line at recess as my punishment; (2) By my arch nemesis, the Homewood, AL motorcycle cop, who does not count it as a "stop" unless you count to five-Mississippi; and (3) By Anne during The Crème Anglaise Incident. I think that's about it, if you don't count getting flipped off in traffic every once in a while.
Anyway, you know how sometimes you'll wake up with a kind of sick/nervous feeling, but can't immediately remember what is bothering you? This is exactly what it was like for me with these Floating Islands -- I had this vague unsettled feeling from the time I read the recipe, but it took a while for me to identify the root of my uneasiness: OH YEAH!!! ANNE SMITH YELLED AT ME ABOUT CRÈME ANGLAISE IN 1994!!!!!!!!! I think it was that, plus the fact that Dorie expressly says that these are easy, but somehow the "easy" aspect of this recipe was lost on me, what with the precise temperature requirements for the custard, the meringue making, the meringue POACHING, and the fact that caramel was involved.
First, the crème anglaise. I wish I could tell you that making this enabled me to finally break free from the shackles of negative crème anglaise associations, but unfortunately, the entire process gave me fits. I simply could NOT get this stuff to reach the 180 degree temperature. I kept stirring, and it kept getting thicker, but the temperature would not budge above 150 degrees on either my candy thermometer or my instant read thermometer. I turned the temperature up to medium (from medium low). I gave it a good 30 minutes (maybe more). Then I finally bailed. I was pretty sure that it was already too thick as it was, and could not even imagine what it would look like in thirty degrees.
The end result was fine, albeit probably too thick (straining it was quite a job and involved defying some laws of physics) and the wrong color. I did not achieve the beautiful, silken ivory cream that Dorie shows in the picture -- my crème anglaise looked more like "putty" (if it were J. Crew pants) or "bar harbor beige" (if it were a Benjamin Moore paint color). It certainly tasted good, though!
Moving on to the meringues. I read Dorie's very helpful and detailed piece on meringue-making before I began, and was feeling pretty good about the state of my whipped egg whites:
Yup, I was pretty sure that they were just right. But then I had to shape them into "islands." Dorie lists two options for shaping the meringues: the refined "manicured islands" or the more rustic "rocky volcanic islands." After assessing these options against the backdrop of my own skill level, I decided to take the dessert and make it my own by creating "rocky volcanic islands that have been pillaged and plundered by an imperial sovereign:"
Really, nothing about this poaching process was pretty. I'm really glad that there were no witnesses.
On to the caramel. I learned early on in TWD that:
Caramel = not my friend.
In fact, Amanda, who is my friend but who bears 100% of the blame for getting me into this baking/blogging thing in the first place, sent me this message upon learning about the caramel:
Uh oh, Cathy. I just read the P&Q for Floating Islands.... Shari of Whisk was talking about making caramel... :-( Please be careful.
Thank you for looking out for me, Amanda. Any other week I probably would have experienced a bunch of "to caramel or not to caramel?" inner turmoil, but last week was long and tiring, and deep down I knew that I just wasn't up for caramel-related drama in my kitchen. So I cheated and used Smucker's. Please don't vote me off the (floating?) island.
I served the first island to my go-to girl for guaranteed positive feedback:
Her vocabulary right now is pretty much limited to farm animal noises, but she really seemed to love this. She quacked in approval.
I then served one up to my hubs, even though I was still somewhat perturbed at him for nicknaming these "Islands in the Stream," thereby getting Dolly Parton stuck in my head for the next 24 hours. I was REALLY REALLY surprised at how much David and I enjoyed these, given all the trouble I had making them. David took one bite and said, "wow, these meringues really meringued up nicely. It's like biting into a bottle of alka seltzer." At first, those two sentences may seem a bit, um, incongruous, but I was pretty sure that (1) he definitely meant the alka seltzer comparison to be a compliment; and (2) I knew exactly what he meant. All the air that had been whipped into the meringues slowly compresses out when you bite into one of these things, resulting in a not-unpleasant "fizzy" feeling in your mouth. Okay, so maybe it wasn't supposed to do that, but mine did, and we liked it, dammit! The airy meringues and the richer creme anglaise complemented each other perfectly. The Smucker's caramel topped it off nicely (and I can only imagine how wonderful real caramel must have been!) This was a really delicious dessert!
The Floating Islands were chosen by the fabulous Shari over at the really wonderful Whisk: A Food Blog. Stop by Shari's blog for this recipe, and be sure to check out her gorgeous photography and incredible food while you are there (she is cooking her way through the Le Cordon Bleu curriculum at home -- her blog is fantastic!). Shari, thank you for the fun pick!