You don’t need to be an aristocrat to enjoy this elegant 17th-century dessert, but you will feel transported once you taste this dish. Made with humble ingredients like eggs, cream and sugar, this dish is much more than the sum of its parts. The eggs are divided into yolks and whites to create a luxurious sea of custard with delicate islands of meringue, all encased in a caramelized sugar cage.
For the creme anglaise: Add the milk, heavy cream and a pinch of salt to a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the vanilla seeds and scraped pod. When the cream begins to simmer, remove it from the heat and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Remove the pod and bring the cream mixture back to a simmer.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. Temper the eggs by pouring in a small amount of hot cream while continuously whisking. Pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the remaining cream mixture and continue to whisk over medium-low heat until fully incorporated.
Continue to whisk until the mixture begins to thicken, being careful not to let it boil, as this may scramble your eggs. When the creme anglaise can coat the back of a spoon, it's ready to strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Cover and refrigerate until completely chilled, at least 1 hour.
For the meringue islands: add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whisk the egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy and beginning to froth. Stop the mixer and add the cream of tartar. Continue to whisk on high while streaming in the sugar. Add a pinch of salt and continue whipping on high. When the whites are glossy and can hold stiff peaks, about 3 minutes, the meringue is ready.
Meanwhile, add the milk to a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Set out a clean tea towel on your countertop.
Using two large spoons, make quenelles by moving the meringue between the bowls of 2 large spoons, using the edge to scrape the center of the spoon holding the meringue, until you have a three-sided oval
Gently set each meringue quenelle in the warm milk. Poach for 1 minute then gently flip and poach 1 minute more. (The meringues may shrink a little during cooking.) Remove the poached meringues to the clean tea towel to drain. Transfer the meringues to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and chill for at least one hour before serving.
For the caramel cage, add the sugar and 1/3 cup water to a very clean medium saucepan. Do not stir or whisk, rather swirl the pot until all the sugar is moistened. Cook the sugar over medium heat until it starts to turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Continue to cook, swirling occasionally, until the sugar is amber colored, about 1 more minute; turn off heat. Allow the caramel to cool slightly for 30 seconds and thicken a bit.
Prepare 4 small, heatproof bowls or metal domes by spraying with cooking spray (this will allow the caramel to release after hardening). Use a spoon to carefully drizzle the hot caramel in a zigzag motion over the interior of the bowl. Repeat with additional spoonfuls, drizzling in the opposite direction to create a crisscross pattern for your caramel cage. Allow the caramel to cool completely before delicately removing.
Spoon a small pool of chilled creme anglaise in the center of each plate. Place 2 to 3 poached meringues in the center of each pool. Top with a caramel cage.