Culinarians and Business-People are divided into two categories: cooks and bakers. Cooks are free-form and whimsical in their approach – a little of this, a pinch of that. Precision is not necessary, and often balked at. Bakers, on the other hand, are very structured. Recipes must be followed precisely to get the desired result. An extra pinch of salt could ruin a dessert, whereas with a savory dish, it could further enhance.
I am a cook!
The exclamation point comes as a result of the only time I was fired from a job: as a pastry chef. Despite this setback, throughout my career, I’ve needed to make desserts – when at Chez Henri and the pastry chef was on vacation, the task fell on me. Or as a private chef, I always made my own desserts. I’ve learned to get by, and by home-cook standards, I’m pretty good. By professional standards, well… I’m a cook not a baker.
I have a few desserts that always impress. Their simple preparations don’t require the same level of precision as many other desserts. Surprisingly, one of my favorites comes courtesy of Thomas Keller. To be sure, he is not known for his simplicity. Each dish, each dessert, has several different components. The trick, for me, has been to determine where the line of diminishing returns is.
Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, dolls up the French classic, “Ile Flottante” by filling them with chocolate mousse. Ile Flottant, or floating islands in English, are poached meringues “swimming in a sea” of crème anglaise. He elevates it further by serving them with chocolate tuiles, mint oil and a chocolate shaving salad seasoned with sea salt. I opt against the tuiles and the chocolate salad.Instead of mint oil, I sprinkle freshly julienned mint for both the color contrast and flavor. I take my own liberties by adding Tahitian vanilla to the meringue which gives the dessert an expansive, yet melt-in-your-mouth feeling, almost like cotton candy.
Floating Islands Filled with Chocolate Mousse5 egg whites (save yolks for crème anglaise)
1 cup sugar
½ Tahitian Vanilla Bean
3 egg yolks
4 tablespoons sugar1 cup half-n-half
½ Tahitian vanilla bean
3 ounces dark chocolate, melted
¾ cup heavy cream
Berries and Mint for Garnish
Make meringue: Combine egg whites and 1 cup sugar in a mixing bowl.Set over simmering water and whisk until sugar dissolves and the mixture is about 110 degrees (slightly warmer than body temperature). Remove from heat and whisk with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside ½ cup.
Brush 6 ramekins with oil.
Fill each ramekin with the remaining meringue. Put in a baking pan with high sides. Fill the baking pan with water to come up half way on the ramekins. Cover with foil.
Bake meringues for 30 minutes at 300F.
Remove ramekins from water bath, and let set in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the crème anglaise:
Heat half-n-half over medium heat with the vanilla bean. Whisk the egg yolk and the sugar. When small bubbles form around the edges of the pot, slowly drizzle the half-n-half into the yolks while whisking vigorously. Return the entire mix to the pot and continue cooking over medium heat, while stirring constantly, until it starts to thicken. Remove from heat instantly and let cool.
Make the chocolate mousse: Whip the cream until stiff peaks with an electric mixer. One third at a time, fold the cream into the chocolate. When completely combined, fold the reserved meringue into the chocolate mix.
Hollow out the inside of the cooked meringues with a spoon, making sure to keep the exterior intact. Fill the cavity with the chocolate mousse. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, invert the floating islands onto a plate. Spoon crème anglaise around. Garnish with mint and berries.