At the time of year when thoughts turn to romance (albeit prompted by the marketing exercise that is Valentine's Day) it seems timely to roll out the French classic coeur à la crème. If ever there was a dessert designed to win the heart of one's valentine, this would have to be it. Long a part of the classical French repertoire, it debunks the myth that French desserts are, without exception, complex and difficult. Far from haute cuisine, this dish is perfectly simple. It's traditionally made from unsweetened soft white cheese curds set into porcelain heart-shaped moulds with perforated bases for the whey to drain overnight. They are then unmoulded and served with cream poured over, covered with sugar. The traditional porcelain coeur moulds are available from specialty kitchenware stores, but don't be put off making this uncomplicated dessert if you can't get hold of them (or if you don't want yet more paraphernalia cluttering your kitchen cupboards). Do as we have and simply wrap the cheese in muslin, making them a more free-form affair (and, if the truth be known, more closely resembling a real heart than the moulded variety).
Recipes vary greatly, using cottage cheese, cream cheese, ricotta, mascarpone, crème fraîche and/or yoghurt, in myriad combinations. We've used cream cheese and ricotta for a creamy, smooth result and, although it's not strictly traditional, we've added a touch of sugar.
The further beauty of this French classic is that it's the perfect foil to almost any seasonal fruit. InFrench Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David describes a stay in farmhouse accommodation in Bourg-en-Bresse and being served "a wonderfully fresh and innocent looking cream cheese dish… served covered in rich cream" accompanied by a beautiful bowl of fresh wild strawberries. A menu dating from Berowra Waters' original incarnation (11 October 1981, to be precise) lists the dish accompanied by rhubarb compote, and Sydney's Sean Moran likes to serve his with spiced cherries. Make the most of summer's berry bounty and try a combination of them served with raspberry sauce.
For a decadent dessert, this simple French treat of cream cheese and sweet berries will melt hearts.