Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
For poaching the meringue:
1.25 litres (21/4 pints) full-fat milk 2 vanilla pods, split lengthways (see page 16)
For the meringue:
8 medium organic or free range egg whites 275 g (10 oz) caster sugar
For the vanilla custard:
8 medium organic or free range egg yolks 75 g (3 oz) caster sugar milk used for poaching the meringue
For the caramel:
50 ml (2 fl oz) water 150 g (5 oz) caster sugar
Infusing the milk:
Pour the milk into a large, shallow pan, about 30 cm (12 in) in diameter and 7.5 cm (3 in) deep, and bring to simmering point. Scrape the vanilla seeds into the milk with the point of a sharp knife and whisk to disperse them; add the split vanilla pods, too. Bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a slow simmer for 5 minutes to infuse the milk with the vanilla.
Making the meringue:
Whisk the egg whites and sugar with an electric beater on full power for at least 10 minutes, until the mixture forms shiny, firm peaks.
Poaching the meringue:
With a large spoon, carefully scoop out 4 or 6 large chunks of meringue. Poach in the gently simmering milk for 5 minutes on each side, taking great care not to damage the delicate meringue when turning it over. If the milk begins to boil and rise out of the pan, turn down the heat and gently push the meringue sideways so the build-up of heat and steam can escape. Carefully lift the poached meringue on to a baking tray and set aside. Strain the milk into a saucepan.
Making the vanilla custard:
In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar, then gradually whisk in the hot milk. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan.
Cook over a medium heat for 4–5 minutes, until the custard begins to thicken. Stir constantly to distribute the heat and lift the spoon every 10–15 seconds to check if the sauce is thickening (when it is ready it will coat the back of the spoon).
Strain immediately into a large bowl and continue stirring for 2 minutes to stop any further cooking, otherwise the custard could scramble (if this happens, don’t panic; pour it immediately into a blender or food processor and blend for 30–40 seconds so it regains its consistency).
Leave to cool, then chill. Pour into a large serving bowl and, with a fish slice, carefully place the poached meringues on top of the vanilla custard to create your floating dessert islands.
Making the caramel:
Put the water in a small, heavy-based saucepan and scatter the sugar over it in an even layer. Let the sugar absorb the water for a few minutes, then place the pan on a medium heat and leave, without stirring, until the sugar has dissolved and formed a syrup. Simmer until it turns to a golden brown caramel. Immediately place the bottom of the saucepan in cold water to stop the caramel cooking any further.
Pour a fine coating of caramel over the poached meringues. Wait a few seconds until the caramel sets before serving (or leave it for up to 1 hour).