- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

We were in a small Tuscan village having Easter dinner with our Italian friends about 12 years ago. For dessert, they served fresh pears and some sort of a super-creamy, ultra-smooth cheese. It looked a little like cream cheese but had none of the tart flavor or firm texture of cream cheese.

This cheese was naturally sweet and was like nothing I had ever tasted. It was mascarpone. I returned home eager to buy some, but found out that it was not exactly a supermarket staple. In fact, it was not available to me at all.

Fast-forward to the present, however, and there is good news. Our markets have gone global, and mascarpone shows up in almost every supermarket dairy case. The most common containers hold 8 ounces or 1 cup of mascarpone. Whether the dish is savory or sweet, mascarpone is ready to play its part in either role.

Mascarpone (pronounced mas-kar-PO-nay) is a specialty of the Lombardy region of Italy. This fresh cheese made from cow’s milk has a high butterfat content, often 75 percent or higher. With this much butterfat, it is no surprise the result is exceptionally soft, smooth and creamy.

According to Steve Jenkins in his book “Cheese Primer,” the name probably originates from the Italian verb “mascherare,” meaning to mask. And mascarpone certainly has that quality of enriching and enhancing whatever dish it goes into.

What else could you expect from such a rich concoction? Check the date on the package when buying mascarpone, and choose one that is dated at least a week ahead, longer if possible. I find that the package dates in the same dairy case can vary by a month.

Store the cheese in the refrigerator, and be sure to use it within a couple of days after it is opened. Mascarpone should have a sweet smell and taste when opened, and there should be no sign of mold.

The mild flavor of mascarpone blends easily with sweet or savory dishes. The classic savory use is as a torta di mascarpone. This Italian version of a savory cheesecake is usually served as an appetizer accompanied by crisp bread slices or crackers.

A classic torta combination is a simple layering of Gorgonzola dolce (sweet Gorgonzola) and mascarpone. Fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, spinach, smoked salmon, prosciutto, mild cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sweet peppers are other flavoring options often used with mascarpone to make the layers.

It is usually best to use no more than three flavor choices for the torta layers. Think about using contrasting colors. The torta below exemplifies this with its smoked-salmon and dill-flecked-lemon layers.

Mascarpone can add an especially creamy texture to both sweet and savory baked cheesecakes. A savory basil and sun-dried tomato cheesecake makes a nice light dinner dish, first course or hearty appetizer. To turn this cheesecake into party finger food, serve bite-size squares in small muffin papers.

For an instant pasta sauce, simply stir mascarpone into hot drained pasta, then add any other seasonings. The hot pasta melts the cheese into a creamy sauce.

Use about 1/4 cup of mascarpone for every two cups of cooked pasta. The more cheese you add, the creamier the sauce.

This same idea works for cooked vegetables, with peas or asparagus making especially good choices. For asparagus, the seasoned mascarpone should be drizzled over the cooked stalks. Or make a simple dipping sauce for artichoke leaves with mascarpone that has been thinned with whipping cream and seasoned with garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper.

Think fruit when using mascarpone in sweet recipes. The distinct and often acidic qualities of most fruits are perfect partners with this mild cheese.

Try serving a dipping cream of sweetened mascarpone with fresh strawberries, spreading the cheese on slices of fresh apples, or spooning dollops on a plate of fresh figs and toasted whole almonds.

White or brown sugar can sweeten the mascarpone to your taste. Cinnamon or grated citrus zest make good all-purpose flavoring additions.

Chocolate and coffee are also excellent flavors to mix with mascarpone. You have probably tasted mascarpone paired with coffee in the ever-popular tiramisu.

My easiest recipe for chocolate cream-pie filling is to stir melted chocolate and mascarpone together for a basic filling. Then, depending on my mood, I add some vanilla or almond extract, mint, liqueur, or orange peel to flavor it. Versatile, sophisticated and simple, this pie is a prime example of what cooking (or noncooking) with mascarpone can do.

Savory basil and sun-dried tomato cheesecake

BREAD-CRUMB CRUST:

Butter for pan

2 cups coarsely ground bread crumbs

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FILLING:

1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced

2 peeled (halved) garlic cloves

1 teaspoon oil from sun-dried tomatoes

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces (1 cup) mascarpone

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

Fresh basil leaves for serving, optional

For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan with heavy aluminum foil, letting the foil extend over the ends of the pan. Butter the foil. In a food processor, mix the bread crumbs and melted butter until blended thoroughly.

Transfer the crumb mixture to the prepared pan, and use your fingers to press the crumbs evenly over the bottom. Bake for 10 minutes in preheated 350-degree oven.

For the cream cheese filling: Process the chopped basil, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped, about 30 seconds. Add the oil, egg, egg yolk, flour, salt and pepper, and process just to blend the eggs into the mixture. Add the mascarpone and cream cheese; process until smooth. Pour the batter over the partially baked crust, and smooth the top.

Bake until the top is firm if given a gentle shake, about 20 minutes. Cool 1 hour in the pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, at least 3 hours or overnight.

Lift the aluminum foil and cheesecake from the baking pan. Loosen the aluminum foil from the sides of the cheesecake. Cut into squares; serve garnished with basil leaves, if desired. The wrapped cheesecake can be stored in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Makes nine 3 ½-inch squares.

Smoked salmon and dill torta

24 ounces (3 cups) mascarpone

6 ounces smoked salmon, cut in 1/4-inch pieces

2 ounces smoked salmon, cut in ½-inch strips

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

Toasted French bread slices or crackers for serving with the torta

Line a mini-loaf pan (aluminum-foil pan is fine) or other container with a 2-cup capacity with plastic wrap, letting the plastic extend over the edges.

Put half the mascarpone in a small bowl, and stir in the salmon pieces. Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared pan.

Place the salmon strips over the mascarpone. Put the remaining mascarpone in a second small bowl, and stir in the lemon juice, lemon peel, dill and salt. Carefully spread it over the salmon strips; smooth the top.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. Unmold the torta onto a serving plate. Remove the plastic wrap. Press the pine nuts gently onto the top of the torta. Spread on toasted bread or crackers, and serve. The torta can be covered and refrigerated up to 2 days. Makes spread for about 30 toasts or crackers.

Chocolate cream pie

CRUMB CRUST:

Butter for the pan

1½ cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FILLING:

12 ounces mascarpone (1½ cups)

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1½ teaspoons vanilla

2 tablespoons strong coffee

Chocolate curls for garnish, optional

1 cup cold heavy whipping cream, whipped to firm peaks with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, optional

For the crust: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch pie pan. Stir the cookie crumbs and melted butter together. Press the crumbs evenly in the pan. Bake 6 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling: In a large bowl and using a large spoon, stir the mascarpone and melted chocolate together until blended, no white streaks remaining.

Stir in the vanilla and coffee. Immediately spread the filling in the cooled crust. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour, up to 2 days.

Remove the pie from the refrigerator 1 hour before serving to soften slightly. Garnish with chocolate curls and/or whipped cream, if desired.

Makes 8 servings.

Strawberries in mascarpone cream

2 cups strawberries, stemmed and sliced

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

8 ounces (1 cup) cold mascarpone

½ cup cold heavy whipping cream

½ cup confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 tablespoon amaretto, optional

4 whole strawberries

Have ready 4 stemmed glasses. In a small bowl, stir the sliced strawberries and sugar together. Let sit 15 minutes. In a large bowl, whisk the mascarpone, cream, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, almond extract and amaretto (if desired) until smoothly blended.

Using half the mascarpone cream, spoon into the 4 glasses. Spoon the sliced strawberries into each glass, dividing them evenly.

Spoon the remaining mascarpone over the strawberries. Top each with a whole strawberry. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

Makes 4 servings.

Elinor Klivans is the author of “125 Cookies to Bake, Nibble, and Savor” (Broadway Books).

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