Mama Mia Mascarpone!

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Since our ricotta and mozzarella successes, my son and I have been feeling pretty confident in our cheese-making skills. We’d moved on to cream cheese and sour cream, and even my classic stupidity couldn’t ruin the latter. Still, when we mixed cream and white wine vinegar and came up with amazing mascarpone, we were awed (and utterly lacking in humility) by our prowess.

I always thought of homemade cheeses as being especially tricky, with the cook needing to be extra-super careful about cleanliness and precise temperatures.

Well, maybe so, and especially for hard cheeses (we’ve stuck to soft ones). But when even the sour cream worked, after my mistake of putting the jar in the (turned-off) oven overnight in an attempt to provide it a protected spot to set, then, naturally, preheating that oven the next morning for a batch of cookies … I started getting cocky.

But I know better. Food writers always harp on using the best ingredients , but there’s often more wiggle room there than we let on. Not so for cheese: my skill takes a backseat to my ingredients.

I remember years ago testing the combination of buttermilk and cream to make creme fraiche; with ordinary supermarket cream, this just doesn’t work. Ultra-pasteurized cream won’t make decent cheese. The creme fraiche took forever to set, and when it did, it was a nasty, slimy blob.  Now a local dairy gives us easy access to very fresh, pasteurized cream (not ultra-pasteurized, which gets a higher-heat treatment). Rich, mouth-coating and thick, this cream does all the work.

Mascarpone mixes 4 cups of that cream with a tablespoon of white wine vinegar (or lemon juice). The cream heats slowly over hot water, and when the vinegar goes in, at first nothing much seems to happen. This isn’t like making ricotta, where clumps of cheese form right away. Instead, it just gets a bit thicker, creamier, custardy. You’ll think there’s some mistake when the recipe instructs pouring it into a cheesecloth-lined sieve — won’t it all go through? But it’s thicker than you think. Almost nothing drains, and after it chills, the sieve is filled with the best cream cheese ever.

Use it in tiramisu, of course, or cheesecakes, ice cream, tarts or cake frostings. Or just spread it onto terrific bread with a slight smear of jam or drizzle of honey — and amaze yourself.

Related recipes: Homemade Mascarpone, Tiramisu Parfaits

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