Two things define the menu at Le Coq Rico, the elegant Flatiron restaurant by respected French chef Antoine Westermann. If you know anything about the restaurant at all, you know that the first of these two is the endless parade of poultry products, from boutique chickens to duck foie gras to what the menu, in an odd flash of whimsy, refers to as "eggz." The second defining feature is a spirit of simplicity.
Of course, simplicity is relative at a restaurant where you order your chicken by breed, and whole birds cost upwards of $95. But Westermann famously asked the Michelin Guide to retract the three stars it bestowed on his first restaurant, Le Buerehiesel in France. His follow-up restaurants, including this one and the original Le Coq Rico in Paris, favor hearty, traditional (if still elegant) dishes over fussy tasting menu fare. When it comes down to it, a meal a Le Coq Rico usually consists of rotisserie chicken and potatoes, maybe a salad or some mac and cheese on the side. Simple.
And this is why the ile flottante (in English, "floating island") is the perfect dessert for Le Coq Rico. Not only does it rely heavily on eggs – yolks for the thick puddle of creme anglaise lining the bowl, whites for the delicate island of poached meringue set adrift in the center – it actually looks like an egg. Unlike the average ile flottante, which involves a craggy blob of meringue, this one features a perfect sphere of whipped egg whites. A dusting of finely crushed hard caramel gives it the look of a speckled shell. But beyond appearances, says pastry chef Matthieu Simon, the ile flottante follows the principal Westermann has set for the rest of the menu: "It’s the best version," he says, of a "simple, really French dessert." It’s the sort of thing his mom might make, dressed up in a little extra luxury. Here’s how that’s done.
Simon starts with the creme anglaise. Normally he makes six liters at a time, but here he sticks to a smaller, more manageable batch. A creme anglaise is a thin custard, with a consistency more like a sauce than a pudding. Usually it’s made with milk, but Simon uses heavy cream instead for a richer, thicker result. He also adds extra egg yolks for a similar effect, though he notes it’s important not to add too many or "you’ll feel the egg" in the finished sauce. Simon whisks those yolks with some sugar. He whisks vigorously for a good minute or so: the goal here is not just to blend to two together but to whip them into a pale, satiny mixture.
Next he splits open a plump vanilla bean, and scrapes the fragrant seeds into a pot of cream. He heats the cream just until it starts to simmer, so it’s hot but not boiling, then pours half of it into the bowl of yolks and sugar. While he pours, he whisks: to keep the yolks from cooking too fast and curdling, it helps to keep things moving. It also helps not to dump in all the hot cream at once. Half the pot is just enough to warm up the yolks without cooking them immediately.
Once the cream, yolks, and sugar are thoroughly blended, Simon pours the mixture back into the pot with the rest of the cream and turns the burner back on. He stirs continuously, watching carefully to make sure it cooks slowly and evenly — again, he doesn’t want those yolks to curdle. This goes on until the creme anglaise has thickened enough to pass the back-of-the-spoon test: When Simon holds up the custard-coated spoon and runs a finger across its back, no creme anglaise flows down to fill the trail he left behind.
Setting aside the creme anglaise to cool, Simon turns to the pink praline almonds and caramel sugar, the crunchy accoutrements that will top the ile flottante. While the pink pralines are a classic French treat, and the sort of thing a pastry chef could reasonably buy premade, Simon makes his. And it’s more complicated than you’d think to make pink, sugared almonds. First, Simon prepares a simple syrup, cooking sugar in water until it’s dissolved. He tosses raw almonds in this syrup and pours the mixture out over a Silpat lined baking sheet. Then he "confits" the almonds, as he puts it, by baking them at just 150 degrees for four hours. When that’s done, Simon tosses the almonds with a little more syrup dyed red with a hefty dose of food coloring. Then they go back in the oven until they’re dry, not sticky. Finally, they’ll be meticulously sliced lengthwise before being scattered over the ile flottante.
But we’re not there yet. Next Simon makes the hard caramel, which he’ll pulverize into a fine, sugary dust. This is the simplest sort of caramel there is: it starts with nothing but white sugar in a pot. Simon turns on the burner and waits, watching carefully but not stirring, which might form lumps and crystals. Soon the sugar starts to melt. It dissolves into a pool of clear syrup in the bottom of the pot, then begins to color. A golden hue appears around the edges, then creeps towards the center. It darkens and browns, going from amber to chestnut. And just before it crosses the line to burnt, Simon pours it out onto a non-stick Silpat where it immediately begins to cool. Soon it will firm up into a crystalline sheet of caramel as hard as a lollipop. Simon will break up this caramel and run it through a food processor, turning it into a caramel dust just a little finer and much more flavorful than the sugar he started with.
Finally it’s time to make the centerpiece of this dessert, the ile itself. There’s nothing complex about this, it’s just egg whites and sugar whipped into a cloud. This is a small batch, so Simon, classically-trained French pastry chef that he is, decides to beat the whites by hand. For a bigger restaurant-sized batch, he’d use a machine. But even on a small scale, whipping egg whites is not easy. Simon’s whisk flashes back and forth across the bowl in a figure-eight pattern; occasionally he switches whisking hands. Slowly the whites work into a lather, then a loose foam. Minutes pass and finally the meringue is the consistency Simon wants: glossy and thick enough to form soft, droopy peaks. He’ll pipe this into a silicone mold, but refuses to show exactly what that mold looks like — he’s afraid of other copying his perfect sphere.
In any case, the meringue is steamed until it can be unmolded intact. Then Simon pours a little creme anglaise into a bowl and gently sets the meringue down in the center of it. He scatters slivered almonds around the base and sifts a fine dusting of caramel sugar over the top. The resulting dessert is much more than the sum of its parts: the meringue alone would be blandly sweet, but it adds lightness and texture to the rich creme anglaise, which would be like liquidy pudding on its own. The caramel sugar has all the flavor of a crackly creme brulee top, and the almonds and crunch and color to an otherwise beige dessert. It is exactly what you want after a restaurant feast, something creamy and sweet and light, and a little bit more elegant than it needs to be.
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