Chocolate Floating Islands

Ingredients for Custard:

1-1/2 ozs. good-quality semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 oz. good-quality unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 egg, graded "large," plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Pinch salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Ingredients for Meringues:
3 egg whites, from eggs graded "large," at room temperature
Few grains salt
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
For poaching the meringues:
5 cups water

Finely shaved or grated semisweet chocolate
Fresh strawberries

In medium heatproof bowl, combine finely chopped chocolates. In small saucepan over low heat, heat cream until very hot, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; pour about half over chocolates. Let stand for a minute or two, then whisk gently until smooth. (If necessary, place bowl with chocolates over simmering water on low heat (water should not touch bottom of bowl). Whisk often just until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and hot water.) Gradually whisk in remaining cream. Set aside near stovetop.

In small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine egg and yolk, sugar, salt, and about 1/4 cup milk. With spoon, beat until well-mixed. Gradually stir in remaining milk. Place over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches 174 to 175 degrees F. on a candy thermometer--no higher! Immediately remove from heat.

Pour about one-fourth of the hot custard through a fine strainer into chocolate mixture; whisk gently to combine well. Gradually, in several more additions, pour the remaining hot custard through the fine strainer into the chocolate mixture. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl thoroughly once or twice during this process. When ingredients are blended, gently whisk in vanilla. Pour into pitcher or liquid measuring cup with at least a three-cup capacity. Cool briefly, then chill until very cold, at least 6 hours. When custard is cold, cover with a circle of paper towel cut slightly larger than top dimensions of pitcher, then cover with plastic wrap (the paper towel will absorb any condensation that might form, which would otherwise fall back into the custard). Chill custard until needed.

About 90 minutes before serving, set the egg whites for the meringues at room temperature; let stand in small or medium, grease-free bowl, covered, for at least one hour. Have ready 6 to 8 dessert plates; they should be mostly flat, but must have shallow sides. Have ready the shaved semisweet chocolate and the strawberries for serving. Have ready a large (12" diameter) nonreactive frying pan and a slotted spoon for poaching the meringues. Line a cookie or baking sheet with about 6 layers of paper toweling, and set aside near stovetop.

To finish dessert, pour 5 cups water into the large frying pan; cover and set over medium-high heat. When water steams, reduce heat to low and start meringue. With sturdy, hand-held electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt at high speed until very foamy, white, and increased in volume. Gradually add sugar, about one tablespoon at a time, beating between additions. Continue beating at high speed to stiff peaks.

Remove cover from frying pan; water should be steaming, but not boiling. Working quickly, drop heaping tablespoons of the meringue into the steaming water (I put about 6 in at one time). When last meringue has been placed in water, start timing. Poach meringues for 2 minutes. Gently turn over with large slotted spoon; poach for one minute on second side. Using slotted spoon, remove from water and place on paper-towel-lined cookie sheet to drain and cool. Repeat procedure with remaining uncooked meringue; you want to make two "islands" per serving, or a total of 12 to 16. Allow poached meringues to cool completely (this doesn't take long).

To serve, divide chilled custard evenly among serving plates. With slotted spoon or clean hands, gently and carefully pick up two meringue "islands" from cookie sheet and place on top of each plate of custard. Sprinkle with the shaved semisweet chocolate, and place a strawberry or two (washed and well-dried) on each plate (or pass berries separately). Serve immediately.

NOTE: You'll need a candy thermometer for the custard, and a slotted spoon and large frying pan in which to poach the meringues. While poaching is an unusual technique for cooking meringues, it isn't difficult and it doesn't take long. The completed custard will keep in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days, but the dessert should be assembled just before serving. A pretty dessert that tastes good, too, this is nice for spring.

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