Growing up, Sunday lunches where always the time for special desserts in my family. My mother always spent extra time making a decorative cake, trying out a new cookie recipe, or satisfying the family’s recurring request for madártej, our favorite. It may have been a frugal indulgence, but a labor-intensive one at that, as the creamy custard and light-as-air egg-white dumplings would have to be prepared a day in advance. The giant bowl of deliciousness was instantly inhaled by all.
A direct descendant of the French floating island, madártej (literally “bird’s milk”) is a deceptively simple looking dessert of fluffy meringue floating on a sea of vanilla custard that has become a staple of the Hungarian culinary lexicon.
While many European countries have similar dishes (think of Schnee-Eier, or “snow egg”, in Germany, or îles flottantes in France), the Hungarian version is made with fatty milk and slightly less sugar than the others. The name, bird’s milk, also sets it apart from its European counterparts and it is believed to hail from the latin translation of ‘lac gallinaceum’, or chicken’s milk, which referred to a meal which was so unbelievably delicious, such as a make-believe bird’s milk.
The quality of ingredients is key here, as is a lot of patience and attention. But once this light delicacy is ready, if my own family is any indication, then it is sure to be a real crowd pleaser.
Madártej (Bird’s Milk) Recipe
6 eggs, separated
1 cup (240 grams) sugar
3 1/2 cups(800 milliliters) milk
1 tablespoon vanilla (or 1 package vanilla sugar)
Instructions for Meringue
- Beat the egg whites until they are firm with stiff peaks, gradually beating in half a cup of the sugar.
- Heat the milk in a non-stick pan until it is just barely bubbling. Avoid bringing it to a hard boil at all cost!
- Use a spoon to drop small, nicely-shaped egg-sized meringues into the bubbling milk, making sure to not overcrowd the pan. Turn the meringues after two minutes, and cook for an additional minute (they will get bigger as they cook). Remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and put them in a strainer to drain (reserve the milk that drains off of the dumplings). Repeat the process until all the beaten egg whites are cooked.
- Prepare the custard.
Instructions for Custard
- Combine the yolks with half a cup of sugar and very carefully, gradually stir in the hot milk with a whisk, including the milk that has drained from the cooked meringues.
- Cook over a low heat until slightly thickened, stirring constantly with a whisk. The mixture will be runny, but it will thicken when cooled. Stir in the vanilla and let it cool, while occasionally stirring to make sure the custard doesn’t develop lumps.
- Refrigerate for several hours, or overnight. To serve, place the meringue “islands” on top of the custard in individual bowls.