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A Spongy Web of Culinary Lies

Repeat after me: oeufs, not flottante

As a lifelong Luddite, when it comes to food research I prefer referencing my own collection of cookbooks to surfing the Web. This email I received (OK, I admit it, I do use a computer, too), and my response, only reinforces my distrust of the (mis)information superhighway:

Hi Lee:

I'm curious: In your review of Cafe Maurice, you criticized one dessert, called le flottante, on the grounds that the name should refer to a liqueur-sprinkled sponge cake with jam and nuts, as opposed to what the cafe served, oeufs a la neige (soft puffs of merengue in custard).

i've never encountered any such sponge cake thing in France. Any menu I've ever seen that listed le flottante has -- invariably -- just been using the less popular name for �le flottantes. Which are the same thing as oeufs a la neige: merengue "islands" floating in custard.

Last spring sometime, I remember Martha Stewart Living having something called le flottante on the cover. But again, it was a variation on the merengue islands on custard, i.e. it doesn't seem to be a US/French difference.

Then I got totally curious, and Googled le flottante. Still, just merengue shit.

So what are these sponge cake le flottante things?

-- Jane Doe

My response:


o tell me, Jane, who are you going to believe -- Cafe Maurice, Martha Stewart, all the menus you've encountered here and in France, Wikipedia, and dozens of definitive food websites, or...me? Shame on you if you answered the former.

Let me present my references:

Firstly, item number 4702 in Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (page 559), which gives the recipe for "Ile Flottante (Floating Island)" as being made from a "stale biscuit de Savoie" molded, saturated with Kirsch and maraschino, spread with apricot jam, sprinkled with currants, and nibbed with almonds -- the whole then topped with creme Chantilly and surrounded with sauce Anglaise. Le Guide Culinaire, first published in 1902, is widely considered to be the FINAL WORD, if you will, on any and all culinary matters.

The Illustrated Escoffier offers the same recipe for Ile Flottante (page 180).

My secondary source (or tertiary, if we include the illustrated version of the first) is The New Food Lovers' Companion, Third Edition, p. 239: "In France, �le flottante (floating island) is liqueur-sprinkled sponge cake spread with jam, sprinkled with nuts, topped with whipped cream, and surrounded by a pool of custard."

Page 417 of Larousse Gastronomique (The Encyclopedia Of Food, Wine And Cookery) offers more proof that �le flottante is a sponge cake-based dessert...

And yet when I, too, Googled �le flottante, like Ms. Doe, I was led to one website definition after another after another after another confusing �le flottante with oeufs a la neige. To find out the true meaning of these two terms requires...a good, old-fashioned book.

So, just wondering: What other untruthful morsels are all of you online readers swallowing lately? --Lee Klein

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