(Oeufs à la Neige)
SERVES 4 – 6
"Eggs in the snow" is one of the most ingenious of classical French desserts, and one that has also entered the traditional American culinary lexicon.
4 cups milk
1 vanilla bean
1 1⁄3 cups sugar
1. Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil, then remove from heat. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise, add to milk, cover and steep for about 15 minutes.
2. Separate whites and yolks of eggs. Set aside 4 of the egg whites and freeze the other 2 for another use. Beat yolks and slowly sprinkle in 1⁄3 cup of the sugar. Continue beating until thick and pale yellow in color.
3. Remove vanilla bean from milk. Scrape seeds from bean and add to milk, discarding pod. Pour milk, in a fine stream, into egg yolks while beating them continuously. Pour mixture into a pan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until it forms a custard thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 20 minutes; don't rush the process or the eggs will scramble. Pour custard through a strainer into a shallow serving dish. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
4. Beat egg whites until foamy, then add 1⁄3 cup of the sugar very slowly, continuing to beat until egg whites are shiny and stiff but not dry.
5. Put remaining 2 cups milk in a large shallow pan and bring to a low simmer. Using a large slotted spoon, form big egg shapes out of whites and poach them in the milk for 30 seconds on each side. Do not overcook. Put the "eggs" on a clean towel to drain.
6. Combine remaining 2⁄3 cup sugar with 1⁄3 cup water in a small heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until sugar caramelizes, turning amber in color. Remove pan from heat to prevent caramel from burning. This can happen very quickly, so it is best to take the pan from the heat just before the sugar darkens, as it will continue cooking. Cool for 5 minutes or until caramel forms into threads when drizzled from the tines of a fork.
7. Using a slotted spoon, carefully arrange the "eggs" on top of the custard. Dip a fork into the slightly cooled caramel—you will have to work quickly—and wave the fork over the dessert to form threads of caramel that crisscross and tangle. Serve immediately.