Mascarpone (pronounced mahs-car-POH-nay) is made from only two ingredients, whole cream and citric or tartaric acid (to thicken the cream). That's it. The process to make it is so simple you can even make your own mascarpone cheese at home.
Mascarpone should have a very smooth texture with no lumps or graininess. The flavor is milky and slightly sweet, sometimes with a tangy finish. The rich, buttery flavor comes from the fact that mascarpone has a high butterfat content. It tends to go bad quickly, so use an open container of mascarpone within a few days. Marscapone can be found in most better supermarkets in the dairy or cheese section of the store.
The closest cousins to mascarpone are English clotted cream and French creme fraiche. High-quality creamy ricotta (avoid ricotta with larger curds) or cream cheese can also be a substitute for mascarpone.
Cooking with Mascarpone
Mascarpone is best known as an ingredient in the Italian dessert tiramisu. Besides tiramisu, mascarpone can be added to both sweet and savory dishes, providing a rich, creamy element. For a savory twist, add mascarpone to pasta, alone or along with a sauce, to give the pasta a rich and creamy texture. It can replace cream in some pasta dishes. You can also add it to baked pasta recipes, like lasagna, macaroni and cheese, or baked rigatoni, to make the dish rich and creamy. Use mascarpone to thicken soups, or whisk fresh herbs and garlic into mascarpone for a creamy dip.
A simple way to enjoy mascarpone as a sweet dessert is to sprinkle cocoa powder, chocolate shavings, or sugar on top of a big dollop of it. It's also good with a drizzle honey on top. Serve these variations on mascarpone fresh berries, figs, or simple cookies.
More Soft Italian Cheeses
- Ricotta: Fresh ricotta has a slightly sweet, milky flavor. Traditionally, cheesemakers made fresh ricotta by heating whey (the liquid that remains after curds form during the cheesemaking process) until it thickened into soft, fluffy curds. Some cheesemakers still make ricotta from whey and some make it from whole milk. You can make ricotta at home using cow's milk and lemon or vinegar.
- Mozzarella: Well-known and loved, this mild cheese belongs in the category of stretched-curd cheeses. This means the cheese goes through a step that involves pulling and twisting the curds during the cheesemaking process. This gives the cheese a texture that is slightly stringy. In creamy stretched curd cheeses, like fresh Mozzarella, this stringiness should hardly be detectable. Mozzarella is usually made from cows' milk unless it is called mozzarella di bufala, which is rare in the United States and made from the milk of water buffalo.
- Crescenza (also called Crescenza-Stracchino): This is a thick and runny rindless cow's milk cheese with a creamy whitish color and tangy, yeasty flavor. Crescenza is typically aged around a week. The appearance is very similar to what a big chunk of melted Monterrey Jack looks like and the flavor is similar as well. Crescenza melts well and can be added to pizza, polenta, pasta, or simply dress up the cheese with olive oil and herbs and spread it on bread.