Italy’s most luxurious fresh cheese, Mascarpone [mahs-kahr-POH-neh] is a soft, buttery cow’s milk variety of double – to triple-cream status. With a milk fat content of 60 to 75%, the ivory-coloured cheese is delicate in flavour and extra creamy in texture. Rich, supple and almost decadent, it can be easily spread onto fruits, breads and crackers, or deliciously mixed into some of Italy’s best recipes, including risotto, lasagne, cannoli and tiramisu.
Hailing from Italy’s Lombardy region, it’s believed that Mascarpone was first made in an area southwest of Milan sometime around the late 16th or early 17th century. But many theories exist as to how the exquisite cheese got its name. Some say “Mascarpone” comes from the Spanish “mas que bueno” (“better than good”). Others insist the name comes from “mascarpia,” a local dialect term for the similarly produced “ricotta.” According to culinary experts, though, the cheese’s original name was “mascherpone,” a moniker derived from “Cascina Mascherpa,” a family farmhouse that was once located between Milan and Pavia.
Although Mascarpone is often described as a curd cheese, it’s “technically” not a cheese at all. It’s actually made in much the same manner as a yoghurt, with a culture.
To produce Mascarpone, cream is skimmed off the top of standing milk and poured into metal containers. Once heated to 85ºC, the cream is soured with tartaric acid, a natural acid derived from the tamarind tree. The mixture is then allowed to rest in special containers or cloth bags to drain off the whey. Within 24 hours, the cream mixture thickens and becomes very dense. Unlike many other cheeses, Mascarpone is not aged and it’s generally sold right after production.
One delicious side note: Mascarpone’s cream base is traditionally skimmed from the cows’ milk used to make Parmesan. These cows are fed a special diet of grasses, herbs and flowers, which ultimately gives Mascarpone its wonderfully milky fresh flavour and aroma.
Buying and Storing Tips
Mascarpone is usually available at your the supermarket. If not, look for it at gourmet markets, Italian delicatessens or order online. Some harder-to-find Mascarpone varieties are made from water buffalo milk or flavoured with coffee or fruits. In many areas, the cheese is sold in plastic tubs, but in Italy, it’s lovingly wrapped in cheesecloth. Keep in mind that Mascarpone is generally more expensive than other cream cheeses – and absolutely worth it.
Once purchased, Mascarpone should be promptly refrigerated and enjoyed within one week.
So delicate and creamy, Mascarpone needs little garnishing to be fully enjoyed. Take pleasure in a Mascarpone dessert topped with sliced strawberries and chocolate shavings. For a sweet surprise, simply mix it into your hot cocoa and coffee instead of cream. For more savoury preparations, spoon Mascarpone onto hot pasta tossed with sautéed mushrooms and grated Parmesan. Or mix it with chopped herbs and spices and enjoy with toasted baguettes. In Italy’s Friuli region, Mascarpone is most famously mixed with anchovies, mustard and spices and spread onto bread. For total indulgence, pair your Mascarpone creations with Port, Champagne or a snifter of Brandy.