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A heart's delight for Valentine's Day

Dessert in France often consists of fruit with a carefully selected cheese or cheeses to accompany it, chosen to enhance and contrast in flavor and texture. Red Delicious apples with Camembert and Bosc pears with Port du Salut are two popular combinations.

Valentine's Day is no exception, but the cheese is more special, as it is molded into the shape of a heart and is appropriately called Coeur a la Creme, or cream heart. The sentimental name belies its simple country origin -- from the most basic of homemade cheeses, fromage blanc, or white cheese.

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Fromage blanc was made on the farm with clabbered, or soured, milk, which was placed in a muslin cloth and left to drain of its whey, the curds remaining in the cloth. It is very similar to the cottage cheese we buy in the market today.

In making Coeur a la Creme, the muslin bag is placed in a wicker or porcelain heart which molds the cheese into the shape from which the desert takes it name.

In early recipes, the Coeur a la Creme was sprinkled with sugar and eaten with heavy cream or creme fraiche. Today, most people enjoy it garnished with glazed whole strawberries and served with a strawberry sauce.

Coeur a la Creme molds are made either of wicker or porcelain and come in a variety of sizes. They may be purchased in gourmet shops, and prices range from draining the cheese, may be bought in gourmet shops also, but you'll find it in many hardware stores too.

This recipe requires a 3-cup heart-shaped mold, but the quantity of ingredients can be adjusted accordingly for other sizes. It is best to make the Coeur a la Creme early in the morning or the night before it is to be served, because the cheeses need at least 6 hours to drain. Coeur a la Creme 1 cup (8 ounce package) cream cheese, softened 1 cup cottage cheese 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup heavy cream 16 whole strawberries 1 cup strawberry jelly Cheesecloth

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. In separate bowl, beat cottage cheese until smooth, or put through a sieve. Add cottage cheese, sugar and vanilla to cream cheese and beat until light. Whip heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks, then gently fold into cheese mixture.

Line mold completely with moistened cheesecloth, leaving enough around edges to fold over top, about 2 inches. Spoon cheese mixture into mold, smoothing and packing in firmly. Fold cheesecloth over top. Place mold on wire rack set over pie plate, bottom side down. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

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Just before serving, warm jelly. Dip whole berries to glaze.

Open up top of cheesecloth. Invert mold onto serving platter, then carefully remove cheesecloth. Arrange glazed strawberries around edge and serve with strawberry sauce. Eight servings. Strawberry Sauce 1 10-ounce package frozen strawberries, or 1 pint fresh strawberries 1 tablespoon orange juice

If using fresh berries, rinse and hull them. Defrost frozen berries. Blend berries to a fine puree with orange juice in blender or food processor. Chill.


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