A Chef Updated a Dessert from Our 1963 Cookbook (and It's Delicious)

Chef Alexis makes over a classic meringue dessert from our 1963 cookbook.

It's hard to not be intrigued by a dessert with a name like Strawberry Floating Island. In this episode of Then & Now—a series celebrating 100 years of Better Homes & Gardens®—chef Alexis deBoschnek takes on the recipe from a 1963 edition of the New Cook Book that comes together in the form of pillowy meringues atop creamy custard and fresh strawberries. She also dreams up her own modern version featuring crisp pavlova layered with lemon curd and berries. After taste-testing the dishes, she has to decide if one floats her boat more than the other. Read on for the full take before attempting the retro or newer version of our Test Kitchen's classic dessert.

Strawberry Floating Island
Shirley Cheng

Then: Strawberry Floating Island

A Strawberry Floating Island, according to the BHG recipe, consists of poached meringues and strawberries floating in custard. Alexis starts by beating egg whites, sugar, and a pinch of salt, until stiff peaks form. The salt acts as a binding agent here. "Hang them over your head, and if they don't drop, you're good," she says while demonstrating.

She then cooks the meringue by poaching it in milk—a method she deems "fascinating." The recipe calls to add the milk into a pan and let it simmer. Once it starts to bubble, spoonfuls of meringue are dropped and cooked until firm. "One thing that does feel really exciting about this dessert is that it's no-bake, which I think is always good news," she says. "That kind of plays into the idea of what was going on in the '50s—put in the least amount of effort as possible for the most exciting thing you can get."

After removing the firmed meringue from the milk and draining it on a paper towel, Alexis whisks up the custard: eggs, egg yolks, sugar, salt, and the reserved milk. To not end up with scrambled eggs, make sure the milk isn't too hot. The recipe calls for cooking the custard over hot water—using a double boiler is a good way to ensure it won't curdle. After 7 to 8 minutes, she removes the thickened mixture from the heat, adds the vanilla, and puts it in the fridge to cool.

The dessert is assembled in martini glasses "for a fun, retro vibe." After hulling the strawberries with a paring knife, she puts a couple in each cup and tops with the custard and meringue. "I love how showstopper-y it is," she says. "We don't really serve dessert like this these days, and I think we're missing out." As for the taste: You get the best flavors of strawberry shortcake condensed into one, she decides. "It's amazing."

Pavlova with Lemon Curd and Fresh Berries
Shirley Cheng

Now: Pavlova with Lemon Curd and Fresh Berries

For the updated recipe, Alexis wants it to pay homage to the Test Kitchen's retro version. She goes back and forth between a custard- or meringue-based dessert and ultimately chooses a pavlova. Alexis starts similarly to the last recipe by making her meringue with room temperature egg whites (essential for soft and pillowy results), salt, and cream of tartar. Sugar is gradually added and beaten until stiff, glossy peaks are achieved.

Unlike the last recipe, Alexis opts for baking the meringue instead of poaching (which takes more time). It's then divided and smoothed into circles onto two baking sheets. "You don't have to be too precious with how it looks," she says. The layers just need to be even in size for stacking. They bake until they're crisp on the outside and light and chewy on the inside.

Lemon curd isn't a traditional part of pavlova, but Alexis wants a citrus element to cut through the sweetness of the meringue. (You can also do lime, grapefruit, or orange here.) Lemon juice, eggs, egg yolks, salt, sugar, and lemon zest are whisked in a pot over medium heat until smooth. When it's warm, cold butter is added and stirred until fully incorporated. The curd is ready when it begins to thicken. "You can really feel a resistance when you're stirring," Alexis says. The lemon curd is strained to ensure it's silky-smooth before chilling.

When the meringue seems hollow and feels firm (about two hours), it's time to remove it from the oven. To assemble, layers of lemon curd and whipped cream top the meringue. One of Alexis's favorite elements of pavlova is its rustic appearance—there's no right or wrong way to decorate. She likes a "look of abundance," so she piles on the fruit. "All of these retro recipes, the real hook of them is that they look amazing," she says. "But I have to say this one actually looks just as exciting, if not more."

Cutting into the pavlova, you can see all the different layers. She takes a "comically big bite" and declares that it's perfect. The exterior is crispy, the interior is like a marshmallow cloud, and the whipped cream brings it all together.

Comparing the two, Alexis can't pick a winner. The strawberry floating island doesn't take as long to make, but the pavlova is worth the extra time. "They're both amazing desserts that highlight meringue."

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