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Even if you regularly eat yogurt for breakfast or a snack, you might forget that it's a versatile ingredient for luscious improvised desserts. Yogurt desserts can be easy and healthful enough for everyday family dinners and kids’ after-school treats, or elegant enough for company.
When I say yogurt, I mean the real deal: plain unsweetened and unflavored yogurt, made with live cultures and without gelatin, stabilizers, or gums. For me, it’s also organic and locally-made. I’m not opposed to adding something sweet or flavorful to my yogurt—but I am all about doing it myself so I can control the amounts, quality, and freshness of all additions! A little DIY can make the difference between a so-so desk snack and a seriously good dessert.
If you normally eat low or nonfat yogurt, full fat will taste rich and properly luxurious for dessert even though it is still much leaner than heavy cream, ice cream, mascarpone, and sour cream. Even if fat is not a concern for you, yogurt is a sensational starting point for dessert. Its distinctive tanginess—in contrast with other, sweeter elements—is exactly what makes yogurt an exciting ingredient. Since brands and personal tastes vary, you can always soften yogurt’s inherent tartness by stirring in a little heavy cream and/or playing with the amount of sugar or honey or other sweetener.
Greek yogurt, which has been drained of excess liquid, is thicker and more decadent on the tongue than regular yogurt, and often less tangy. But it’s easy to drain regular yogurt to get that creamy, thicker, and richer consistency. If you drain it even longer, you'll get an even thicker yogurt “cheese.”
Drained yogurt not only feels more like dessert than regular yogurt, but it also invites you to compose rather than simply serve in a bowl with a spoon. Arrange scoops on plates with several pleasing partners—nuts, pieces of dried or candied or stewed or fresh fruit, cookies, sweet syrups or honey, etc.—so each guest can create perfect bites, scooping up the crunchy, chewy, creamy, sweet, and tart elements as they like. It's creative, easy, and sophisticated, too!
Line a strainer with a double or triple layer of paper towels or a couple of paper coffee filters. Set the strainer over a bowl and fill it with plain regular yogurt. Cover and refrigerate the whole ensemble for at least a few hours, or until the yogurt has the consistency that you are looking for. The longer the yogurt drains, the thicker and thicker it will be. After a couple of days it will be as thick as a fresh cheese.
You can even drain Greek yogurt to make it even thicker; most of the excess liquid will get absorbed into the paper towels or coffee filters, so you may not see liquid in the bottom of the bowl, but you will notice that the yogurt is thicker.
These ideas are just a starting point really, and all are based on Greek or thickened yogurt or yogurt cheese.
1. Yogurt with strawberries, honey, and halvah
On each plate, compose a scoop of thickened or Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese, ripe strawberries, drizzles of honey or date syrup, chopped or shredded halvah, and toasted walnuts or pecan pieces.
2. Yogurt with apricots and almonds
Compose a scoop of thickened or Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese, ripe apricot halves (fresh or caramelized on the cut sides in a sauté pan with a little butter and sugar), drizzles of honey, drops of balsamic vinegar, candied orange peel, and toasted almonds. Add a sprig of thyme or another herb from your garden if you can. Sherry or a golden-hued dessert wine is a good partner here.
3. Banana yogurt
Up to 3 hours before serving, mix roughly equal parts mashed ripe bananas with plain Greek or thickened yogurt. Stir in a little white or brown sugar or honey and pinches of ground cardamom, to taste. Spoon into dessert glasses and refrigerate (no longer than three hours) or serve immediately, sprinkled with chopped pistachios or walnuts.
4. Coconut yogurt
Stir about 1/2 cup (42 grams) unsweetened shredded dried coconut into 2 cups (450 grams) plain Greek or thickened yogurt. Stir in drops of pure vanilla extract and about 2 tablespoons (25 grams) sugar, to taste. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and as long as overnight to allow the coconut to rehydrate and infuse the yogurt with flavor. Serve in glasses. Sprinkle a pinch of ground cinnamon over the top or garnish with fresh mango or pineapple.
5. Yogurt on top
Yogurt often beats whipped cream as a topping for all kinds of sweet and spicy desserts, and it’s also a great dip for cookies. It’s all about the yin and the yang—the irresistible contrast of sweet with tart! Dollop thickened or Greek yogurt on slices of spice cake, gingerbread, dried fruit compotes, homemade applesauce, and fruit cobblers, too. Serve it as a dip for spicy cookies, gingersnaps, and amaretti. It’s probably even good on a Fig Newton, other jam cookies, and certain biscotti, too! If in doubt, give it a try!
Hint: Unsweetened yogurt is perfect on most of the combinations mentioned, but you can always taste and add a little sugar or honey to the yogurt as necessary.
For more ideas and recipes using yogurt, see Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts (Artisan 2012) by Alice Medrich
Photos by James Ransom