Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TWD: Floating Islands


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!

53 comments:

n.o.e said...

I'd quack with approval too if I had such a pretty island on my high chair tray. That girl's a keeper in the taste test team (always nice to have a few "yes men" or "yes ducks", right?) Glad that you and your husband agreed. This recipe was a bit of a pita, but very yummy in the end. And for the record, Westport is so not a plastic cup on the roof bar kind of place! Sorry about the lifelong creme anglaise scarring.
Nancy

Pam said...

Love your taste tester - could she be any cuter? I've never heard of this dessert before but I think this looks really tasty.

Debinhawaii said...

"rocky volcanic islands that have been pillaged and plundered by an imperial sovereign:"--you have the best lines! You always crack me up. This looks like WAY too much effort and skill are involved for me to ever make but I would have happily quacked, clucked, mooed, or whatever at you to get one!

Steph said...

Cathy, what a cute picture! I'm sure it was all worth it afterwards. I wish I had the time to make this, but I'm definten't not skipping out on the cake next week. I can't wait!

Andrea said...

Glad you had a happy taster, what a cutie! I can totally relate to being a Seriously Boring Rule Follower, and I love all of your scolding incidents, too funny. Your Floating Islands look impressive and I'm happy that you and your husband both really enjoyed this dessert :)

Audrey said...

Ah, Westport...I used to go there a lot for work, and it's just not a naked dessert kind of town! I really enjoyed making these, though I think Anne would have yelled at me too. Your little girl is precious!

natalia said...

Ciao ! I really don't know about the creme anglaise thing ... but those islands were great !!

Lady Baker said...

What a blast from the past! Onion Alley and 'whats-his-name" snowboarder dude!! Ahhh...good times, good times!

Panic no longer about c.anglaise--you conquered it! (Take that, Anne!)

Sabrina said...

You did a great job and you still were able to write a blog post about it! You survived! :)
Carmel is not my friend either! SCARY!

Maria said...

I like the rocky volcanic look:) And what an adorable taste taster you have!!

Jessica said...

I always read your posts and I have at least 10 things that I want to tell you.
1. My dad grew up in Westport! Right on the Sound and I've always been a little peeved that I missed out on that.
2. I am totally a "boring rule follower" and I hate being scolded. I think that personality trait develops early on in life.
3. I think that calling these Islands in the Stream is a hilariously great idea.
4. The floating islands look great, I'm glad that they tasted great too. I'm trying to get it together to make these later on today (like this evening).
5. So glad that you and David liked them and the picture of your little one digging in is so cute!

spike. said...

You're doing all right if you've only been yelled at 3 times in your life! Glad you guys liked the islands

Jules Someone said...

Oooh. Sorry that such a negative memory is associated with such a wonderful dessert. Glad you enjoyed it!

MacDuff said...

Oh good lord. I am so impressed that you made these! There was no way I was attempting it. And it's so weird, isn't it, how food people get stuck in your head? I still remember getting reemed out for a bad Caesar salad I made once in a restaurant. I can't make a salad without asking myself "Are those happy croutons? Do you think those are happy croutons? DO YOU?????"

vibi said...

Ahhhh! Not many up to now, made the islands... but I knew I would see it here... at Faithful Courageous Cathy's!!!
Very well done... I see at least one munchkin enjoyed it very much! LOL

Peggy said...

I'm in awe of your perfect dessert. Those meringues. . yum. I'm scared of meringue. I admit it. So much room for failure there, ya know? But kudos to you for making this and it looks delicious!

Anne said...

What a funny association, I know what you mean though! Those look absolutely perfect and I'm glad they were a hit. I think your farm animal tester would get along great with my little guy, too. They totally speak the same language.

Lillian said...

Light and airy? Really? Mine were most definitely not light and airy. I'm glad they worked out for you!

leanne said...

Islands in the stream! Love it. Also love your little quacker! I couldn't get my kids to try mine. I finally got my husband to and it surprised him that he liked it.

Jess said...

Your islands look great - clearly your creme anglaise reaming-out was just preparing you for future greatness. Glad you and your taste-testers liked them!

Jennifer said...

Let me tell you, teenagers, well, they aren't as complimentary! I'm lucky to get an "it's okay" out of either of mine!
Your islands look lovely and I'm so glad you enjoyed them. I really liked mine, too.

Megan said...

Great story - and how nice to be so pleasantly surprised at much you enjoyed them.

Even if one taster did quack approval. :)

karen said...

OMG, you sound just like me, i totally remember every time i was scolded growing up... not by my mom, of course :P, but by everyone else.

Prudy said...

I'm mooing and honking for your post. Could you tell me a little more about getting in trouble; I was really enjoying it. I'm pretty sure we would have been on the yellow line together. I'm glad you both liked it; after all you earned it for 24 hours of Dolly Parton in your head.

chocolatechic said...

Beautiful, just beautiful.

pinkstripes said...

Your floating island looks perfect. I love you story of getting yelled at for your naked desserts.

Your daughter is too cute.

Flourchild said...

Man that Anne Smith needs to take a chill pill..was she a dessert snob, or something!? I so can relate to those waitress days. I had a fun and interesting job at an Italian rest. Some great times!! And yes your so right those girls and boys could care less about fancy presentation. Burger and fries do just fine! I like your floating island picture..I can't even imaging a alka seltzer taste/feel for the first bite, gross!

Melissa said...

Very hilarious that your husband compared these to alka seltzer! I'm glad your family enjoyed these - especially your quacking daughter (sounds like my son!). I skipped this week, but I may have to try them sometime now that I've read your glowing review.

Cathy said...

Thanks everyone!

Jessica -- I can't believe your dad grew up in Westport! Sounds like he had probably moved by the time I worked there, but on the off chance he ever came into OA, I sure hope I served him a fully dressed dessert! Oh, and I think that being a boring rule follower is genetic.

Karen -- Oh, I am most definitely not counting times I was yelled at by my parents (or my children, for that matter). Okay, and there were probably one or two other instances as well!

Michelle -- Anne was not a dessert snob so much as an all-around pain in the ass. Oh, and sorry for the gross alka seltzer analogy. It wasn't alka seltzery so much as fizzy. Not bad, really.

Lisa magicsprinkles said...

So, I'm jamming along and thoroughly enjoying your post (as always) (bar harbor beige! putty!) When you have to go ahead and drop the Dolly-bomb. Great. Now the High Priestess of Pigeon Forge is rolling around in my head, which is really uncomfortable, I might add. By the way, if it makes you feel any better, your buddy Anne is no longer in the casual dining foodservice industry. Last I checked, she's a Wimbledon Champion, Psychologist, Motivational Speaker and Mental Training Consultant for Sport, Business, Education & Life. I knew you'd feel better in your coat of many colors.

The Blonde Duck said...

"She quacked in approval!" I Love IT!

I'm the same way you are. Every scolding I've got and had since 2 is burned into my brain.

Come visit me at www.aduckinherpond.com.

Natashya said...

So glad it turned out for you! I was worried.
I remember every slight and scolding too - generally in the middle of the night..

TourGuideJenn said...

Thanks for the song to roll around in my head all day -- I didn't have one, so you filled a void. :-)

I sat this one out as it looked like something a little tricky to bring to work. Happily work is now in a cubicle rather than in a restaurant with tyrants (I didn't work with Anne, but worked with some who was probably her sister!). Great post, as always! PS -- I have cousins in Homewood AL, but they aren't motorcycle cops.

Cooking for Comfort by Jennifer said...

Your floating islands look amazing! Beautiful job! Glad to see that past creme anglaise experience didn't scar you for life!

Gabe's Girl said...

Another great post! I have not heard "in the weeds" in such a long time. Your lil one is too adorable. Thanks for the great read.

Secret Server said...

I too remember all the times I've been yelled at. I'm glad you all liked them. :)

Heather said...

i think it sounds delicious, although I agree that straining is a tedious task (that isn't always worth it). your go to girl is pretty adorable! a cute face AND a rave review?! you're pretty lucky :)

AmyRuth said...

Cathy, I hope you are backing up your computer because these stories are priceless and your kids are going to roll in the floor some day reading these and remembering life with Mom. You are amazing! LOL so funny! Thanks for sharing your story of perseverance. What a wonder that your little duck loved her treat. They are delicious. That whole vanilla ice cream thing goes down nicely. Great job
AmyRuth

Bridgett said...

Aw, I love your little taste tester! It looks like your Floating Islands turned out beautifully and look delicious as well. Whatever became of that snowboarding boyfriend?? ;)

Di said...

Your post had me laughing so hard my husband felt obliged to comment "Don't forget to breathe!" I think it's so funny that we both talked about how we're rule-followers this week. =) I'm really hoping that Gillian (and Caroline) don't grow out of the happy taste tester roles any time soon.

The Food Librarian said...

Ha ha ha! This was too funny. Love your description of the islands...it is so organic! I have scar tissue about certain things too, but mine aren't as funny!

Proud Italian Cook said...

Had a good laugh as usual here Cathy. Your daughter is such a doll!! It sure looks like a floating island, but I think I would have bailed too! I always enjoy your hubbys comments!lol!!

Katherine Aucoin said...

What a humorous story and your taste tester is absolutely adorable. Your dessert came out beautiful!

Teanna said...

Hahahah I would never vote you off of the Floating Island! Hysterical post... I can totally picture the GM yelling because there was no creme anglaise... it's straight out of a comedy! Great post!

bakingwiththeboys said...

I waited tables during and after college. After your reading your post my first thought was, may I never have to wait tables again. Glad you enjoyed these. I did not think these were worth the effort. I was fully planning on using smuckers but didn't even get that motivated.

Liz said...

Way to prevail in the face of intense subconscious resistance! These must've been good, to earn a quack of approval. Nice job. :)

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

Maybe now you'll have fonder memories of creme anglaise! I enjoyed your story! I'm glad you baked along with me this week. (BGW, I have an award for you at my blog.)

Pamela said...

Now Dolly will be stuck in my head as I hit the sheets! Glad it worked out for you and that you came away without any caramel problems.

Barbara Bakes said...

I enjoyed your post. I'm not sure alka seltzer would be a compliment from my husband!

TeaLady said...

CATS (Creme Anglaise Trauma Syndrome) is a terrible
disease afflicting so many bakers. But there is help for us. Somewhere. YOurs look good.

Mary said...

Hee..hee...that is the best post ever. My best childhood friend went to Fairfield and I spent a ton of time down there at the beaches and at that restaurant..good memories....I was the silly drunk girl with the stolen christmas tree wreath on my neck :)...I wouldn't have noticed if you forgot the creme englaise!

Katrina said...

Thanks, now we'll see how long Islands in the Stream is gonna be stuck in my head! ;)

Caroline said...

I love that yours looked exactly like mine, now I don't feel quite so out of it! I am glad that you liked them as I have to admit they weren't my favorite.

 
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