Monday, February 27, 2012

Egg-Filled Polenta Cups


We may be having a mild winter here in the northeast, but soul-warming polenta is welcome at my table even if there's no snow on the ground. There's plenty of snow in Italy this year and that counts for me. And when polenta arrives at the table with melted fontina cheese, sauteed spinach and a runny egg just waiting to ooze onto your plate, so much the better.
I know some of my Italian friends would consider it heresy, but I used the quick-cooking polenta for this recipe. When you gussy it up with all the other ingredients, nobody will ever know. I was inspired to make this dish after seeing a similar version on Menu Turistico's blog, made with cavolo nero and scimudin cheese. 
 I started by heating the milk with some chopped rosemary and a bay leaf. I let the bay leaf steep in the milk until it came to a slow boil, then removed it prior to adding the cornmeal.


This quick-cooking stuff really lives up to its name. In five minutes, you've got ready-to-eat, delicious polenta. It's almost faster than boiling pasta.
Quickly pour the polenta into small ramekins that have been oiled, then make an indentation in each one using a spoon or measuring cups like I did. That hole is for the egg that you're going to plunk inside. 
 Use a medium egg here, so it doesn't spill over the sides. Crack it in a bowl first, then slide it into the small cavity.
 Cover with some spinach that you've sauteed with onions and garlic.
 Then top it all with grated fontina cheese.
 Heat it in the oven for a little while  - but not so long that you overcook the egg. Serve piping hot and watch the surprised look when unsuspecting friends discover the runny goodness that comes gushing forth. It's enough to make you wish for six more weeks of winter. Well, not really, but as long as you've got to endure the cold weather, stoke up with this hearty and delicious dish. 





Join me for a week in Italy at the end of May and live like an Italian - sightseeing, cooking and eating in a villa located in the Alban Hills near Rome. There's still time to enroll. For details go to:
www.cookinitalywithciaochowlinda.blogspot.com 

Adapted from Menu Turistico 

Printable Recipe Here
Serves four people
1 cup polenta (I used the quick-cooking kind)
2 cups milk (I used skim)
1 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 T. minced rosemary
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
salt, pepper to taste

1 bunch of fresh spinach (I used a pre-washed bag of baby spinach leaves)
1 T. olive oil
1/4 cup minced shallot or onion
salt, pepper

1 cup grated fontina cheese

4 medium size eggs

Heat the milk and water in a saucepan and add the bay leaf and rosemary. Bring it to a low simmer and let the bay leaf impart some flavor for a few minutes, then remove it. Add the cornmeal in a steady stream and stir constantly until it thickens. If using instant polenta, it will take only five to 10 minutes. Pour the polenta into greased pyrex ramekins or other similar containers. Immediately, make an indentation with a spoon or use a small measuring cup or the bottom of a small glass. Make it large enough to fit a whole egg into the space. Chill the ramekins in the refrigerator for five to ten minutes. Then remove the polenta cup from the ramekin by flipping it upside on your palm, and then right side up. Place the ramekins in a greased baking dish.

Saute the minced onions in the olive oil, then add the spinach and cook for a few minutes until the spinach is wilted.

Crack a medium size egg into each of the polenta cups. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes - keeping an eye on the egg so it doesn't get overcooked. It may take shorter or longer, depending on your oven, but the egg should be very runny. Then cover the egg with the spinach mixture and grated fontina cheese. Bake another five minutes until the cheese is melted. When I first made these, I baked them from the start with the spinach and cheese over the raw egg, but the egg was so well insulated with the covering that it took a long time to cook. Also, when the egg is totally covered, you can't really tell if it's cooked, or overcooked, so use the method of baking the egg alone on top of the polenta in order to have greater control over the runniness of the egg, then finish baking for only a couple of minutes at the end with the spinach and cheese.


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Friday, February 24, 2012

Spiced Salmon


Salmon is my go-to dinner whenever I want to purge from the excesses of eating too many things I shouldn't have. It's healthy and has a richness of flavor that belies its health benefits. It contains a fair amount of fats - but the kind that are good for you - Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3's are thought to reduce inflammation - inflammation that leads to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, arthritis and some types of cancer.  They've also been found to slow down cognitive problems associated with alzheimer's disease and reduce the risk of depression and suicide. 

It's nice to find something you love to eat that's actually good for you, isn't it? At least once a week, I sit down to a salmon dinner - either grilled, broiled or pan sauteed with salt and pepper, or with a dusting of fiery cajun spices. But another way I frequently fall back on is this recipe I've been making for years. I don't know where it originates from. I wrote it down on a piece of paper years ago without taking note of where I found it. But it must be fairly ubiquitous because Gilda, a friend of mine, served it to me the exact same way a couple of years ago. She doesn't remember where she got the recipe either.

The important thing is to try it. It's spicy but not as spicy as the cajun blend I buy. It's got a sweetness to it too, but I cut the brown sugar in half from the version I had originally written down. The recipe also called for splashing the fish with a little pineapple juice in addition to the lemon juice, but it's not something I normally keep in the house, so I just omit it. I also ask the fishmonger to cut off the skin, but you could also leave it on, if you like. Cooking it at 400 degrees for 12 minutes is also the perfect time and temperature needed to achieve a piece of salmon that's still moist on the inside without being raw. See for yourself -- and try it.


Join me for a week in Italy at the end of May and live like an Italian - sightseeing, cooking and eating in a villa located in the Alban Hills near Rome. There's still time to enroll. For details go to:





Spiced Salmon
printable recipe here


4 6-ounce salmon filets
1/2 lemon

1 T. brown sugar
2 t. chili powder
2 t. grated lemon rind
3/4 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. cinnamon

Squirt the lemon over the salmon filets and mix all the rest of the ingredients together. Place the fish in a greased baking pan and spread the mixture over the filets. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 minutes.
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Castagnole



Hello castagnole ...or bignole or frittelle or whatever you call them where you live. They're like fried doughnut holes but better. I made the pale ones using ricotta in the recipe, and the dark ones with cocoa powder. Both are delicious as is, but wickedly good when you fill them with Nutella. Just take a look.

See what I mean? Who the heck can resist one of these stuffed babies? Personally, my favorite are the pale ricotta castagnole.  For the chocolate ones, I originally used a recipe I found in a February 2009 issue of Cucina Italiana magazine, but the batter was extremely thin and didn't work at all. I had to add a lot more flour than the recipe called for just to keep them together in the oil. The next day, I checked the magazine's website and found the recipe was corrected to triple the amount of flour that was in the magazine copy.  Even so, making the chocolate ones is more difficult because it's hard to tell from the color alone when they're actually cooked through.



Carnevale is celebrated in many Catholic countries including Italy. Children dress up in costumes, flinging tiny scraps of colored paper called coriandoli (we call it confetti) along the streets. In Venice the celebration is particularly festive, with people in elaborate costumes and masquerades arriving from all over the world eager to strut their finery and vie for prizes. I've had the good fortune to be in Venice a few times during Carnevale. Here is just one of the many people in costume you see strolling the narrow streets and posing for photographers.



Fried food, including castagnole and chiacchiere (featured on this blog here) are a staple of the festivities, especially in the final week and days leading to Ash Wednesday and the solemn 40 day Lenten period. It's a time to throw caution to the wind - party all night, eat all those decadent desserts and rich, cholesterol-laden meats. Hence the name fat Tuesday, as it's known in the U.S. or Mardi gras, the French equivalent. The word carnevale derives from the Latin carn, meaning flesh, and levare, to put away.  This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 22, so you've still got time to indulge in these delightful little treats. 
And if you've decided to give up something else for Lent, like peas or okra, well then, you can continue eating these castagnole guilt-free all through the 40-day period. 

Join me for a week in Italy at the end of May and live like an Italian - sightseeing, cooking and eating in a villa located in the Alban Hills near Rome. There's still time to enroll. For details go to:




Ricotta Castagnole

3 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup flour
2 t. baking powder

oil for frying (safflower, canola or similar oil)
powdered sugar
Nutella for stuffing

Heat oil in a pan (I use a cast iron skillet) to a depth of about three inches on a medium-high heat. 

Beat eggs with a whisk in a large bowl. Add sugar, ricotta, salt, vanilla, flour and baking powder. Beat with a wooden spoon until mixed well. Batter should be thicker than pancake batter but not as thick as bread dough.
Drop a tablespoon full into a pan of hot oil. Fry the batter until they balls of dough are golden brown. They almost turn themselves over, but if they don't make sure you flip them to fry all sides. Check the interior after you fry a few to make sure they're cooked through. Adjust the temperature if necessary.
Drain on paper towels. Use a pastry bag and pipe with Nutella. Alternately, cut a hole with a knife and insert a small bit of Nutella. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.

Chocolate Bignole
From lacucinaitalianamagazine.com

Ingredients

Pastry Cream
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1½ tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 3½ ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
  • 1¼ tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
Puffs
  • 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ⅔ cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ⅔ cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • About 3 quarts vegetable oil
  • ½ cup confectioners' sugar

Instructions
For Pastry Cream: In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt until thick and pale, about 2 minutes. In a medium saucepan, bring milk to a boil over medium heat; remove from heat.

In a slow and steady stream, whisking constantly, add about 2 tablespoons of the hot milk to the egg mixture; then, whisking, add remaining milk. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, return to medium heat, and, whisking constantly and vigorously, bring to a boil. Cook, whisking constantly and into the edges of pot, until mixture is thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, whisk in chocolate, and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk in butter pieces, one at a time, until pastry cream is smooth and silky. Transfer cream to a clean bowl, immediately cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming, and chill until cold, about 1 hour (pastry cream can be made up to 1 day ahead).

For puffs: In a bowl, whisk together flour, ⅔ cup cocoa powder, granulated sugar, eggs, egg yolk, milk, butter, baking powder, vanilla and salt until smooth.

Heat about 3 inches oil to 375° in a 3-quart heavy pot over medium-high heat. Drop teaspoonfuls of batter into oil and fry, about 10 at a time, until puffed and dark golden, 1 to 1½ minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer puffs to paper towels to drain.

Transfer filling to a large pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch plain tip. Insert the pastry tip into the center of one puff; pipe in about 1 teaspoon pastry cream (do not overfill). Transfer filled puff to a parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat with remaining puffs.

In a bowl, whisk together remaining 2 tablespoons cocoa powder and confectioners' sugar; dust puffs with cocoa mixture. Serve at room temperature.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Insalata Di Rinforza


It's healthy, low-cal and the perfect antidote to all those rich Valentine's Day goodies. This recipe is inspired by Nigella Lawson, the sensuous English beauty and noted cook. She's not Italian, but in my opinion, she's got the best recipe I could find for insalata di rinforzo, a Neapolitan salad generally made at Christmastime. Even so, I added and changed a few things to make it more to my liking. Throw in a little more of this and a little more of that to suit your taste. Quantities don't really matter that much here.


To me, the salad cried out for more dressing, so I added almost triple the oil and vinegar the original recipe called for. Carrots are a beautiful, colorful addition too, as are the multi-colored bell peppers. I added one green pepper, but would skip that next time in favor of another red, orange, or yellow pepper.
Artichoke hearts would be terrific in this salad too. If I had found broccoli romanesco, I would have added that too. Some people add anchovies as well, especially if it's being served on Christmas eve.
Insalata di rinforzo literally translates to "reinforcement salad" and there are a couple of reasons for the name. One is because you can keep adding more ingredients to "reinforce" the salad for eating later on. The other explanation is that the salad helps "reinforce" your stomach for the rest of the meal to come. Either way, it improves with age and is best eaten after the ingredients have had a day or two to co-mingle. Any leftover can be placed in jars and covered with more oil and vinegar and kept in the refrigerator for weeks.
Insalata Di Rinforzo

Inspired by Nigella Lawson
printable recipe here
My changes are in red.
Ingredients

For dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar (I tripled the amount of the dressing - maybe even quadrupled it.)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

For preserving as a pickle:

  • 1 bottle white wine vinegar
  • 1 bottle olive oil (not extra-virgin)

Directions

Put 16 cups of water into a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and the cauliflower florets and cook them until tender-crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the cauliflower florets with a slotted spoon and plunge them straight into a bowl of iced water.
Pour out half of the boiling water and add the white wine vinegar, remaining salt, fennel seeds, and garlic cloves. Bring the pan back to a boil and add the celery, onions, peppers, fennel, and whole chiles; cook for about 10 minutes until tender. Refresh the vegetables in the same way, plunging them into iced water; when they are cold, drain them along with the cauliflower florets.
In a large bowl, mix the cauliflower and other vegetables with the garlic, olives and capers. Whisk together the vinegar and oil for the dressing and pour over the salad. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle over the chopped parsley. Combine everything really well, which is easiest done using your hands. At this point you have a pickled vegetable salad which serves 8 generously, or you can stuff everything into wide-necked sterilized canning jars and pour in a mixture of half vinegar and half olive oil to cover the vegetables.
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Conversation Heart Cheesecakes for Valentine's Day




  Do school kids today still exchange valentines? I sure hope so. If they do, they probably don't cover shoeboxes in construction paper and cut slits in the top like we used to do. They probably have some fancy plastic cases purchased just for the occasion. Or maybe they just send electronic valentines these days. If so, too bad. The fun was coming home from school and poring over colorful cards and reading all the corny messages.



The candy was nice too but I don't remember the enormous selection that you see now. We either got red hots -- tiny, deep red hearts that tasted like cinnamon -- or we got these little sugary conversation hearts with silly little sayings on them. The only people who got chocolates were adults, and heart-shaped boxes in red and pink satin were as popular back in the dinosaur ages as they are now - maybe even more so back then.



When I saw these cheesecakes  on the blog "Hungry Happenings," made to look like those little conversation heart candies from my youth, I knew I would have to make them. 
  The timing was perfect too, since my Italian chit-chat group is scheduled at my house today. Naturally, I had to write the sayings in Italian, rather than English.

  In case you don't speak Italian, and want to whisper some sweet nothings into your loved one's ear this Valentine's Day, I'm including the translations below. 


      Italian sweet sayings for Valentine's Day
  •   Per Sempre - for always
  •   6 Bella - (A play on the word "sei" which in Italian means "You are." It's also the same word for   the number 6. Both are pronounced the same way - namely like the English word "say." Hence "6 Bella" translates to "You are beautiful."
  •   Baci - kisses
  •  Mi manchi - I miss you.
  •  Ti adoro - I adore you.
  •  Dolce amore - sweet love
  •  Pazza di te - crazy for you
  •  Tesoro mio - my treasure
  •  Solo tu - only you
  •  Primo bacio - first kiss
  •  Ti amo - I love you


Join me for a week in Italy at the end of May and live like an Italian - sightseeing, cooking and eating in a villa located in the Alban Hills near Rome. There's still time to enroll. For details go to:



 Basic Cheesecake Recipe


 For full directions on how to make the heart cheesecakes, go to Hungry Happenings website here.

printable recipe here

Conversation Heart Cheesecakes (makes 12-18)
          recipe adapted from Tyler Florence's Ultimate Cheesecake recipe


Ingredients:

1 cup graham cracker crumbs (15 squares)
pinch of cinnamon
1/2 stick butter (melted)
16 ounces (2 blocks) cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
food coloring - pink, purple, blue, green, yellow, and red

Mix graham cracker crumbs, cinnamon and butter and place a tablespoon full on the bottom of each heart of a silicon heart-shaped mold. Pat down and refrigerate. Mix the remainder of the ingredients (except food coloring). Divide into equal portions and tint each portion a different color, mixing well. Pour over the graham cracker crumbs and place the molds in a hot water bath in a baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees about 25 minutes. Cool completely in refrigerator. I found it easiest to remove the cheesecakes from the mold if I freezed the cheesecakes overnight. Paint the sayings using a paintbrush and food coloring.

For more complete directions and photos, go to Hungry Happenings website here.
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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Grapefruit-Avocado Salad


OK, so the Super Bowl parties and Buffalo wings are history but Valentine's Day and Carnevale are still looming. With those February holidays come a plethora of temptations from cakes and candies to the ubiquitous fried cookies and treats found in Italy at this time of year. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to resist all these goodies. That's why I try to behave myself in the hiatus between all the indulgences.

This salad fits the bill for me for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I know there are more delicious concoctions ahead in the next few weeks that will be hard to resist. So I'm taking the opportunity now to lighten my eating habits in anticipation of the next great eating binges. And trust me, there will be plenty ahead, including a few decadent recipes in the coming weeks right here on Ciao Chow Linda. 


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nutella-filled Cream Puffs

It's useless. I'm not even going to apologize for posting a decadent dessert after the more waistline-friendly pavlova dessert in my prior entry. Blame it on World Nutella Day - and the creators of the phenomenon -  Ms Adventures in Italy and Bleeding Espresso
Together, they've managed to corral Nutella lovers around the world with recipes, stories, artwork and other adventures involving the chocolate-hazelnut treat.
Today, February 5, is the sixth year of World Nutella Day - an event dedicated to spreading the Nutella joy across the blogosphere. So if you haven't participated as an entrant, at least you can enjoy the hundreds of posts from other Nutella devotees - and try making some of them yourself, like these cream puffs. 

I got the best results when I used an ice cream scoop to portion out the batter. I used a piping bag with the first batch and made flatter "disks" that didn't rise as high. They were certainly edible, but didn't reach the heights of the second batch, made using the ice cream scoop.

You can see for yourself the height I got from using the ice cream scoop as a measurer and form for the puffs.  



Those were the ones I took to a dinner party a few nights ago. They were also the ones where the chocolate glaze didn't exactly turn out the way I wanted, even if it tasted good.




This cream puff is one of the rejects I kept from the first batch - a little flatter but still delicious - and this time I used a store-bought chocolate syrup from Hershey's as the glaze.


Cream Puff Shells


printable recipe here
makes 8 large cream puffs

1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 t. salt
1 cup flour
4 large eggs

Melt butter and water in a saucepan, add salt and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball around the spoon.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture should be smooth after each egg is added. Using an ice cream scoop if you have one, drop some of the mixture on a cookie sheet that has been greased, or on a sheet of parchment paper or Silpat. Bake at 15 minutes at 450 degrees, then reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another half hour. Let cool completely before cutting in half and filling.

Filling:

2 cups whipping cream
1 13-ounce jar Nutella

Beat the whipping cream until soft peaks form. Add the Nutella, by spoonfuls, until all the Nutella is incorporated and the cream is stiff. Fill the cream puff shells and drizzle with a chocolate glaze. I used a store-bought syrup made by Hershey's.



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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Personal Pavlovas


She vowed to eat lighter and exercise more as the new year began, but she just had to finish up those leftover Christmas cookies, chocolates and torrone, didn't she? I mean, why waste perfectly good food? But then came January and there was that luncheon, that week out of town, that dinner party, that invitation to an opening reception, and all those good intentions to lose weight somehow never got realized. Moreover, Valentine's Day was looming and shops were laden with more indulgent desserts than magazines have weight-loss ads. What's a gal to do if she wants a little sweetness in her life?

Take a cue from a Russian ballerina and make a pavlova, that's what. If you omit the cream filling and serve only with berries, it's truly low-cal. But even with this filling, made with non-fat yogurt and creme fraiche, a little goes a long way. Or you could use it even more sparingly, plopping a dollop on top of the berries, rather than nestling the fruit on top of the creamy mixture. If calories don't matter, take a different tack and use lemon curd or a custard cream for the filling.

First you've got to make the pavlovas. Whip the egg whites and sugar until they form stiff peaks, then put the mixture into either a pastry bag or a baggie with one end snipped off.


Form eight small "nests" about 3 1/2 inches wide. Use a spoon to shape a hollow in the center.




After baking, they'll turn a little bit beige, but that's ok. They need to be fully cooked and dry on the inside; otherwise, they'll be gummy and sticky to eat. You want to be able to break into them easily with a fork or spoon, and not have to saw your way through with a serrated knife.


OK, now if this is dieting, I'm all for deprivation.




The dessert is named after Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballerina from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There seems to be some disagreement whether it was created by a chef in New Zealand or in Australia, with each country claiming ownership. She must have been an exceptional dancer to have an exquisite dessert created in her name.
I've certainly not seen Pavlova dance, but I did see a beautiful ballet in Paris during my visit a couple of months ago - La Source. With costumes by Cristian LaCroix, it ranked as one of the most spectacularly costumed ballets I've ever seen. This photo is only a small sampling of his lavish creations.


The ballet was performed in the Palais Garnier, the place where operas were always heard until the construction of a new opera house in 1989 called Opera Bastille. Sadly, the Opera Bastille is a drab monolith has nothing of the grace and elegance of the Palais Garnier, the opulent beaux-arts gem that was built in the late 19th century. 
Palais Garnier

Opera Bastille
If you've ever seen or read  "Phantom of the Opera" -- the movie, the musical or the book -- you know it's set at the Paris Opera House - the Palais Garnier. In one scene the grand chandelier falls from the ceiling, wreaking havoc on the audience. The story has its roots in a real event that happened in 1896, after a counterweight from the chandelier fell, killing a member of the audience. Here are a couple of photos of the interior of the Palais Garnier, including a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall above the infamous chandelier. Nowadays, the building is used mainly for ballet performances, but you can also go at different hours just to tour the architectural masterpiece.

Pavlova
Printable recipe here
serves eight

4 large egg whites
1/4 t. cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar

  1.  Preheat oven to 200 degrees. If it goes down to 180 degrees, so much the better.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar on high speed until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Using a pastry bag, or a spoon, make circles about 3 1/2 inches in diameter on the parchment paper. Use a spoon to create a small depression in the center.
  3. Bake for two hours then turn the oven off and leave them alone inside the oven - at least two hours. If you have time to leave them in the oven longer, so much the better. They must be completely dry on the interior, or else you could be biting into a chewy, gummy meringue. Carelly remove them from the parchment paper.
Filling

16 ounces Greek-style yogurt, drained (I put the yogurt in a coffee filter and let it sit overnight)
8 ounces creme fraiche
1 cup sugar
1/2 of a vanilla bean
(I preserve vanilla beans in a covered jar filled with sugar. I have found that eventually the vanilla bean will dry out, in which case I chop it up and put it in the blender along with the sugar. The result is a sugar speckled with vanilla bean - great for desserts or for a special cup of coffee.)
  1. Drain the yogurt overnight, then with a wooden spoon, combine with the creme fraiche, sugar and vanilla bean.
  2. Spoon into the meringue shell and top with berries that have been mixed with a little sugar, freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice.

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