My mother visited my husband and I once in 1982 after we moved to Houston, Texas. We had made dinner reservations at a well-known French restaurant in order to treat her to a fine dining experience during her stay, even though it was very expensive for us back then.
The first part of the dinner is a big blur, and not because it was so long ago or I drank too much. It’s because a giant cockroach appeared on the wall behind my mother. Being new to Houston, I was still not well acquainted with these monsters people referred to as Tree Roaches. Unfortunately my eyes must have revealed too much, because my mother turned around and saw the darn thing, right before it took flight over her head. So I think that a huge part of the meal was more about assuaging my mother that these creatures lived in south Texas, and we all need to co-exist. (Of course, I was downright mortified, not being a fan of creepy crawlies.)
My mother didn’t especially love the dinner or the waiter, and she never embraced the cockroach. But we wanted the dinner to end on a high note, so we all three ordered Oeufs à la Neige.
My husband and I were in dessert heaven – this fabulous crème Anglaise topped with soft egg white clouds – an unbelievable dessert. My mother hated it. She announced that she would make it for us the right way. And the next day, that’s just what she did.
I didn’t think this dessert could be better than at the restaurant, but it was oh, so much better. I don’t remember why it was so much better, but it just was. So in posting this recipe I hope I am doing justice to my mother and the real Oeufs à la Neige, the way it is meant to be.
Oeufs à la Neige
4 cups whole milk, approximately
6 large, fresh eggs, separated into yolks and whites
1 1/4 cups white sugar, divided into 3/4, 1/4, and 1/4 cups
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pour three cups of milk into a large, wide saucepan. Begin heating the milk over fairly low heat; you don’t need it to boil.
Place the six egg whites in a large bowl. Beat the whites with an electric mixer until they form soft peaks. Then add 3/4 cup of sugar a little at a time, along with a pinch of salt. Continue beating until stiff peaks form.
Make sure the milk in the saucepan in hot before you begin making the meringues. Then, using two large spoons, form quenelle-shaped blobs, or egg-shaped blobs of meringue and place them on top of the hot milk. As you can tell in the photo, mine are neither quenelle- or egg-shaped. They are simply blobs and that’s fine. And, they should preferably not touch.
Cook the meringues about 2 minutes, then gently turn them over and cook them another 2 minutes. Then carefully remove them from the milk and place them on paper towels to drain.
Continue until you’ve used up all of the meringue. Strain out any large blobs of meringue that are visible in the milk. Then add about 1 cup more of milk to the saucepan; there should be about 3 cups all together. I just eyeballed it, but if you prefer, strain the milk, measure it, and add the exact amount more to make a total of three cups.
Place the saucepan back on the stove over low heat, and whisk in 1/4 cup sugar until it dissolves. Now you have the sweetened, hot milk, and your bowl of egg yolks.
Using the electric mixer with the same beaters, whisk the egg yolks until they’re smooth. Slowly introduce some of the hot milk to the yolks, mixing it in quickly so the eggs don’t cook in the hot milk. Just be slow and patient. You’ll probably use about 1 cup of milk by the time this process is complete. At that point, return the egg yolk and milk mixture to the saucepan and whisk to combine.
This next step requires that you have everything ready to go – a large serving bowl topped with a strainer, a whisk, a spoon, and a rubber spatula. Over fairly low heat, cook the custard, whisking all the time, just until the point that you can tell it thickened up. Use your spoon to quickly dip it into the custard, then draw a line with your finger down the middle of the spoon. If the sides stay separate, the custard is perfect!!!
Whisk in the vanilla extract, then immediately pour the custard through the strainer and into the serving bowl. Use your rubber spatula to get the custard out of the saucepan, but if you see cooked custard on the bottom, leave it alone. If you’ve done a good job, there will be no blobs of overcooked custard in your strainer!
If you’re going to be serving the custard fairly warm (it’s also good cold), let the custard cool a bit. Then gently top the custard gently with the meringues.
Some people serve Oeufs à la Neige just like this, but I like to go a little step further and add caramel. If you have some purchased caramel, feel free to drizzle a little over each serving, maybe thinned a bit if necessary.
However, I just made my caramel by melting the final 1/4 cup of sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Let the sugar slowly melt into caramel. This is the same process as when you make Crème Caramel.
Then just drizzle the hot caramel over the top of the meringues. I’m not that artistic, so this is the best I could do!
This kind of caramel will harden, so it adds a little interest to the dessert, as well.
Note: You could also scrape out seeds from vanilla beans for the vanilla flavor. I just didn’t wanted the custard speckled today, and I am out of vanilla beans. There’s also vanilla paste and vanilla powder, if you prefer those to the vanilla extract.