I met mascarpone later in life. I knew about it, sure. I had witnessed people swooning, waxing poetic over its creaminess and delicate flavor. But I never really understood all the fuss. To me, this cream cheese from the Lombardy region of southern Italy tasted like a pale imitation of the familiar cream cheese of my childhood. Adding to its faults, it was hard to find in my local stores, and I couldn’t figure out why people pronounced as marscapone when it was clearly spelled mascarpone. It all felt a little arrogant.
A few years ago, in an adventurous mood, I decided to give mascarpone another chance. It was popping up on menus more frequently, and was becoming more mainstream. I began with baby steps by tentatively adding a little to a ricotta cake. Success made me bolder as I moved onto gently folding whipped cream into a few tablespoons of mascarpone for a billowy, slightly tangy topping for strawberries. Over time, I tasted the surprisingly discernable differences in flavor and texture among available brands, and slowly fell in love with the nuanced, fresh creamy flavor of mascarpone.
I went further as I began to make my own, and played with labeling ideas as I imagined myself as the newest cream cheesemonger. I found some variations for making mascarpone, but it always involves heavy cream and some kind of simple acid to cause coagulation (thickening) – typically either lemon juice or tartaric acid (not to be confused with cream of tartar powder!). After some experimenting, I landed on this recipe based on one I recently found in “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” by Mary Karlin. It’s easy to make, and just might be the best mascarpone you’ve ever had. The cream cheese of my youth in its thick foil packaging still has a place in my refrigerator, but these days I reach for this mascarpone first.
Easy Homemade Mascarpone Cheese
ADAPTED FROM ARTISAN CHEESE MAKING AT HOME BY MARY KARLIN
- Makes 12 ounces of cheese.
- Takes less than one day to make; but requires an overnight rest in the refrigerator for the best results.
- Refrigerate what you don’t eat, and use within a couple of days of making it.
- There are only four ingredients, so the quality of each ingredient is critical. Go for the best!
- Avoid heavy whipping cream or heavy cream that is ultra-pasteurized, as it will not thicken or clot into curds well. Avoid heavy cream that has thickeners added, for the same reason. I use Strauss Heavy Cream as it has a wonderfully gentle sweet flavor that shines in the finished product.
- I use a paper towel for squeezing out excess moisture in the cheese. Butter muslin will work fine too, which is like a tightly woven cheesecloth. Many people recommend several layers of cheesecloth, but I’ve found that the cheese can squeeze through the weave at times when removing the moisture from the cheese.
- To squeeze out the moisture, I place the mascarpone on a paper towel, draw together the corners and sides of it around the cheese, and very gently squeeze with one hand on the bottom, and one hand holding the edges of the paper towel together on the top. I hold the squeeze for several minutes. At first the paper towel becomes damp. After about 30 seconds, moisture will form droplets on my bottom hand, and will start to drop into a sink or bowl. Once the paper towel rips a little, which eventually it will, you can repeat the process with another towel or two, depending on how thick vs. how creamy you want the cheese.
- Be careful not to remove too much liquid, or it could be a little too dry and not as flavorful. The consistency should be that of a soft butter or very thick crème fraiche, but it’s really up to you.
- 2 cups pasteurized heavy cream or heavy whipping cream (see Cook’s Notes)
- 1/3 cup powdered non-fat milk
- 1 lemon, cut in half (you will need both the juice and the zest from the lemon)
- pinch salt
Set our your equipment and ingredients so that you can focus on the cheese making. The equipment you’ll need is: a non-reactive heavy 2-quart saucepan, a kitchen thermometer; whisk; metal spoon, spatula, and a couple of paper towels.
Whisk together the heavy cream and powdered non-fat milk until they’re fairly well mixed. There will be some small lumps left. Place the pot over low heat and slowly bring the cream mixture up to 180°F, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. This will take about 40 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Squeeze the juice from half of the lemon into the cream. Switch to a metal spoon and keep stirring. Using a whisk at this stage will inhibit curd formation. You will not see the clean break of curds and whey that you normally see in making farmer’s cheese or ricotta cheese. It’s a very subtle coagulation that shows up as a thickening of the mixture. As you stir with the metal spoon and remove it, the cream will coat the spoon. You might see some very small flecks of solids in the cream. This takes about 5 minutes.
Add the juice of the remaining lemon half and continue to stir, to incorporate it into the cream. Stir for another 2 – 3 minutes, cover, and place in the refrigerator overnight. Keep the lemon halves for zesting into the finished cheese.
The next morning, remove the mascarpone from the refrigerator. It should be firmed up. Using a spatula, place the mascarpone onto a paper towel.
Draw the corners and sides together to form into a ball, and gently squeeze out the excess moisture. This makes the cheese thicker. See Cook’s Notes for more details.
Zest the lemon halves and fold into the cheese along with a pinch of salt. The cheese is now ready to enjoy! It’s great on its own, paired with fresh strawberries, or smeared on dried fruit pieces or fruit gelèe. Dried figs and apricots are wonderful choices. Or, obviously you can use it in baked goods that call for mascarpone or cream cheese.