Friday, February 24, 2017

Floating Islands Inspired by William Marchant's The Desk Set

Let's talk about classic movies.

If you've been following this blog for any period of time, you have most likely picked up on the fact that I really enjoy nerd movies. Marvel. Princess Bride. Lord of the Rings. Galaxy Quest. Star Wars. Harry Potter.

But you know what type of movie I watch the most...even more than nerd movies? Classic movies. Black-and-whites from the 40s, 50s, and (very occasionally) the 60s. Movies from this era are way better than pretty much any era in almost every manner possible.

The dialogue is clever, witty, and meaningful. The plots are intricate, the characters well developed, and the acting completely brilliant. Among some of my favorites are: Arsenic and Old Lace, The Thin Man, My Favorite Wife, The Quiet Man, Bringing Up Baby, The Great Escape, and The Shop Around the Corner. If you haven't seen any of these: Go watch them. All of them. Now.

But the one I want to tell you about today is Desk Set: A 1957 movie with two of my favorite actors: Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. It's a romantic comedy, but not the type that we know about today. Classic romantic comedies are incredibly clever, funny, fast-paced, classy, and sent from heaven above to bring us happiness and laughter. Desk Set is no exception.
Desk Set has dialogue that is unrivaled by many movies of even the classic film era and has a character that is immediately endearing (especially to writers): Bunny Watson.

My entire family is a fan of this movie, so my Dad bought me the screen play (The Desk Set by William Marchant) on one condition: That I make Floating Islands, a desert eaten in the movie, for us to try.
Bunny Watson is one of a kind. She works at the Federal Broadcasting Network in the reference department. It is her job to answer any and all questions that people call in: Do eskimo's really rub noses to say hello? What are the names of all of Santa's reindeer? How much does the world weigh? With her encyclopedic knowledge and intelligence, she can answer every question that comes her way...and remember the answers to almost all of them after they've gone. Yep. Bunny Watson is one of a kind. 

Too bad her boyfriend doesn't see it that way. They've been dating for 7 years and he still shows no intention of asking her to marry him. 

It would seem that her boss doesn't value her enough, either. Electronic brains are being installed in the reference department, supposedly more efficient than Bunny and her team. But Bunny isn't about to lose her job to a machine, and she's ready to prove that nobody can do her work as well as she can. The man in charge of programming and installing this computer is in for a game of wits that even an electronic brain can't match. 

You can watch a clip of Hepburn's Bunny in action here: Bunny's Quiz.

The screen play and movie plots vary in several different ways, one of them being the existence of Floating Islands. The screen play doesn't have them, but the movie has an entire scene built around the consuming of this dessert.

It always looked really good in the movie, so I thought I'd recreate it here. I know that, technically, these posts are reserved to literature-inspired foods. But the movie was literature-inspired, so that counts. Right? Eh. Why am I asking you? My blog, my rules. I vote that it counts. Yay!

Floating Islands are a dessert of French origins: They are baked (or poached) meringue spooned over a creme anglaise sauce and topped with hardened caramel threads. Look at how pretty it is:
Let me give you the recipe. Bunny probably has hers memorized (and can repeat it backwards), but here's mine copied from my notes because goodness knows that my memory is about as flaky as Bunny's boyfriend.

Creme Anglaise (Dairy-Free) 


  • 4 large egg yolks (save the whites for your meringues) 
  • 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/2 cup of cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla

1. Don't try to take pictures while performing this recipe. You'll understand why later. 

2. Beat together you egg yolks and sugar until a thick mixture forms. This takes a few minutes.

3. Heat your almond milk, but don't let it simmer or boil. You want it hot, but not boiling. Pour the almond milk into the egg yolk mixture, stirring slightly (but don't beat. You don't want it to foam). 

4. Transfer this mixture into a saucepan and put on very low heat, stirring at regular intervals and making sure to scrape the sides and bottom. You do NOT want this to boil, simmer, or otherwise overheat. You'll end up with milky, scrambled eggs, which is gross. You just want the mixture to thicken. You'll know to take it off when the mixture starts to give off a good amount of steam pretty much out of nowhere. Immediately remove from heat and strain into a bowl. 

Now. The timing for this is very precise. I stopped to take a picture for you all right before removing it from the heat. I took my eyes off of it for about 10 seconds. And then. Boom! 
Milky, scrambled eggs. Gross. Thankfully, I was able to strain out enough of the sauce to use for a few dishes of dessert. 

5. Add the teaspoon of vanilla. Mix, then set aside. 


  • 4 egg whites
  • pinch of salt 
  • 2 tablespoons of cane sugar
  • 1 tablespoons of cane sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar. The chemical name for this is Potassium bitartrate. Why does this matter? It doesn't. But I'm taking an Organic Chemistry class this semester and just recently learned this, so I feel that I have to put this knowledge to some kind of use, even if it just means writing it here. 

1. Using an electric mixer (or a whisk, if you are Barry Allen or happen to have magical whisking powers) to beat the egg whites, salt, and 2 tablespoons of sugar until it foams. Now add the extra tablespoon of sugar, the vanilla, and the cream of tartar (*cough* Potassium bitartrate *cough* Potassium acid salt of Tartaric acid *cough* *cough*). 

2. Beat until stiff, silky peaks form. Like this: 
3. Dole large spoonfuls of meringue onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If you want to be really French about it, you can make quenelles. Mine are very Americanized, made-by-a-non-trained-person quenelles: 

4. Bake in a 200 degree oven for about 10 minutes...or until they become slightly browned and beautiful looking. 

Caramel threads

I didn't take any pictures of this because I learned from my milky egg disaster. But I'll describe it to you.

  • 3/4 cup of water (the chemical name of which is not dihydrogen monoxide) 
  • 1/4 cup of cane sugar 
  • Dash of vanilla

1. Heat water and sugar until dissolved. Add splash of vanilla. Bring to a boil. 

2. Allow to boil for about 7ish minutes. The target temperature for threading is 230 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can use a thermometer if you want (I didn't because I'm terrible with candies and caramels and just assumed I'd burn this on the first try, thermometer or not). You won't want to stir it, just swirl to keep it moving. After about 7 minutes of boiling, the syrup will change color to a darker, amber color. Allow to cool. Dip a fork into the caramel. When you pull the fork out, long threads of syrup should fall from the tines.

I'm so darn proud that I got my caramel to thread. Syrups and caramels almost always end as a disaster for me, but not this time. This time I won. 

Floating Islands Inspired by William Marchant's The Desk Set
1. Yell "Avengers, assemble!" 

2. Put a few spoonfuls of you creme anglaise on your plate (or other serving vessel). Place a meringue on top. Dip your fork into the caramel and wave over the meringue. 

3. Enjoy while watching Desk Set (it's on Netflix). Just be careful not to choke on it due to laughter. After all, Desk Set is a comedy...and a darn brilliant one at that. 
This movie/play is, I think, especially appealing to the writer and nerd crowd because of the plethora of interesting facts spread throughout the dialogue. You know how you're always wondering weird things like: Who was the first human to wear a contact lens? Or filling your Google search history with queries like: "Arabic word for sand" and "Author of that poem about not going gently into the night." That is pretty much what Desk Set is built around: A clever woman who is on a team that spends their entire day answering those kinds of questions. 

Plus, it's a film from a creative era that I think we writers can learn a lot from. Amazing dialogue, excellent characterization, and stories that actually mean something. Classic black-and-white movies are where it's at.
I suggest watching the movie first, then going and reading the play to catch all of the great dialogue you missed. 

Have you ever had Floating Island? Have you seen Desk Set? What's your favorite classic movie? If you haven't seen very many, please let me know. I'll be more than happy to supply you with a list of films to start with. 

Related articles: 
Corn Dodgers and Peach Sauce Inspired by True Grit
Paleo Chocolate Pie Inspired by Kathryn Stockett's The Help
Blancmange Inspired by Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

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  1. Oooh, this sounds wonderful! I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'll be sure it watch it soon. :) And I'd like to make these for my mom. She really, really likes meringues! But can you make the Creme Anglaise by substituting something else for the almond milk? She's deathly allergic to almonds.

    1. So sorry for my late response! Yes, you can absolutely substitute almond mil with either normal milk (the best option) or rice milk (which I haven't tried, but should be fine, though not ideal). Creme Anglaise is traditionally made with cows milk, so that's the best option.

      I'd love to hear your thoughts if you watch the movie!

  2. Oh my goodness Hannah!

    This desert looks delicious! Thanks for trying the recipe out and sharing the great results with everyone!

    And can I just say, nay, SHOUT "Hooray!!" To find someone else my age who loves old, classic, wonderful, black and white movies is truly a near miracle. :)

    I haven't seen Desk Set yet, though Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn are super!!! I'm so putting it down on my list to watch.
    I'd be really interested in the list of old movies you like, should I email you or will you post the list here in the comments?

    Here are a few of my personal favorites, (mostly for the depth of characters).

    "Parole, Inc." (1948)
    "The Great Flamarion" (1945)
    "Woman On The Run" (1950)

    "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" (1946) *really deep, Kirk Douglas and Barbara Stanwyck*

    "Fear In The Night" (1947) *DeForest Kelley in his first role, before becoming famous as Dr.McCoy in Star Trek*

    "Topper Returns" (1941) *wacky,creepy,and tons of trap doors*

    "Scarlet Street" (1945) *great noir*

    "Too Late For Tears" (1949) *my favorite noir ever*

    "Captain Kid" (1945)
    "Captain Blood" (1935) *amazing*

    "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) *awesome*

    "Sink the Bismarck" (1960) *best war movie*

    "Only The Valiant" (1951)

    "How to Steal A Million" (196) *Audrey Hepburn, so hilarious!*

    "All Through The Night" (1942) *this the one you cannot miss out on. Humphrey Bogart in a dramatic, comedy, war movie.*

    "Northwest Passage" (1940) *Spencer Tracy, in color. Exciting, deeply emotional, amazing scenery.*

    "Hellcats of The Navy" (1957)

    "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961)

    "Charade" (1963)

    "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (193?)

    All the Sherlock Holmes movies staring Basil Rathbone. And all the Mr.Moto movies staring Peter Lorre.

    Sorry the list is so long! And westerns are really my heart deepest loves. And old TV shows are splendid too! But I'll stick with these today. :)

    Sincerely, Emilie.

    1. Sorry for the late response! Here we go:

      Ah! YUSSS! *high five* A fellow classic movie fan! I'm particular excited because I actually haven't seen a ton of these. I tend to watch a lot of comedies and romcoms (which is funny, because I never watch modern comedies or rom coms).

      Here's my list:

      Bringing Up Baby

      Arsenic and Old Lace

      My Favorite Wife

      The Third Man *experimental, but fascinating*

      All the Thin Man movies

      His Girl Friday

      Shadow of a Doubt

      Invasion of the Body Snatchers *1956 version*

      How Green Was My Valley

      Mama's Bank Account

      The Shop Around the Corner

      12 Angry Men

      Dial M for Murder

      There are a TON more. Those are just off the top of my head. If you'd like a longer list, just let me know. =D

      Now, I'm off to go watch some of those movies you mentioned.

      (also, yes, old TV shows rock. I Love Lucy is my favorite, but Dick Van Dyke and Leave it to Beaver are fun, too. =D)


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