What Is Mascarpone Cheese?

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A classic Italian cheese often used in desserts, mascarpone resembles a cross between cream cheese and ricotta, with a creamy texture and rich mouth feel. If you've ever enjoyed tiramisu, the classic dessert in which ladyfingers are soaked in coffee liqueur and layered with creamy, custardy filling, you've indulged in this cheese.

Origins

Originally hailing from Lombardia, Italy's populous northern region near Switzerland, mascarpone was once made exclusively from the milk of pasture-raised cows. The cream is coagulated with citric or tartaric acid to yield a white, spreadable delicacy. The cheese is simple to make and can be crafted at home with quality results. Many large grocery stores also carry American-made versions, but specialty stores may carry imported mascarpone.

Flavor

Mascarpone's flavor is quite mild and slightly sweet, like cream. It's fattier than cream cheese, with a texture almost like butter and a butterfat content of 60 to 75 percent. This fat content makes mascarpone a double- or triple-cream cheese.

Warning

  • Mascarpone is highly perishable, so purchase or make it just before you intend to use it.

Uses

Mascarpone appears in desserts often, but can also turn up in savory fare.

  • Mix it with intensely flavored anchovies, mustard or spices to create a creamy pasta sauce. 
  • Blend it into cooked polenta to create a creamier texture.
  • Finish any pasta dish, such as one topped with tomato sauce or pesto, with a dollop of mascarpone that your family or guests can then blend in.
  • Let it replace sour cream in a saucy dish such as beef stroganoff.

Warning

  • Avoid cooking with mascarpone. Add it only after a dish is complete, because it curdles into an unpleasant texture when heated.

As a dessert, mascarpone can stand alone with a topping of fruit puree and a splash of brandy. Use it to thicken puddings and dessert creams or as a layer in any trifle, not just coffee-infused tiramisu.

Substitutes

If you just don't have mascarpone on hand and can't find it in the store, you can substitute for it.

  • Mix 8 ounces of cream cheese with 1/4 whipping cream.
  • Mix 8 ounces of cream cheese with 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup cream.
  • Mix 8 ounces of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of whipping cream and 2 tablespoons of sour cream. 

Each of these substitutions has a slightly different flavor than mascarpone and may alter the final taste of your dish. For example, sour cream is slightly tangier than mascarpone but does duplicate the texture, making it best for savory applications.

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