If you’re a fan of Italian food, you must’ve heard of Mascarpone. This richly silky but mellow, soft Italian cheese is as common an ingredient in Italian restaurants as Mozzarella, at least if they serve dessert.
Italian households, on the other hand, are another matter. While Italians adore traditional Mascarpone-based dishes, they’re not necessarily among the ones they make themselves at home. Mascarpone cheese seems to be more of a cooking ingredient than something consumed raw, even if it can easily act as any other spreadable cheese.
If you’re a home cook, on the other hand? Mascarpone can be an indispensable ingredient in your kitchen, used for appetizers, main dishes, and desserts with equal success.
So let’s delve into the questions of what is Mascarpone cheese and how to make the most of the tub you have at home.
What is Mascarpone Cheese?
Mascarpone is a type of soft Italian cheese, somewhat similar to American cream cheese. Mascarpone cheese and American cream cheese have similar production methods: both are acid-set spreadable cheese varieties that require no aging before being consumed. Often, Mascarpone is even referred to as Italian cream cheese. However, certain differences in the production process set the two apart.
The most significant difference is the base: while American cream cheese is made with whole milk, Mascarpone cheese is made with heavy cream. Cream cheese fat content typically varies between 30 to 40%. In comparison, Mascarpone cheese fat content is typically over 60%, and it’s not uncommon for it to go as high as 75%. This difference in fat content results in Mascarpone cheese having a silkier, creamier texture, and a richer taste, with more well-pronounced acidity but sweeter undertones. Overall, the Mascarpone cheese’s flavor profile is more complex and robust. While cream cheese can indeed act as an excellent substitute for Mascarpone, it typically results in less rich and creamy dishes, so most Chefs advise tweaking it a little and whipping it with heavy cream to imitate the proper Mascarpone texture.
What is Mascarpone Used for in Italy?
Mascarpone cheese, with its rich texture and mellow flavor, is considered one of the most versatile soft Italian cheese varieties and is, accordingly, used in both sweet and savory dishes. While multiple traditional foods incorporate Mascarpone in one way or another, its use isn’t limited to just classical dishes in any way, shape, or form. On the contrary, it’s often added to recipes that didn’t call for it at all, sometimes as an extra flavoring element, sometimes to fix the texture of a dish, and sometimes as a substitute for an entirely different ingredient.
If you want to enjoy a dollop of whipped cream with your pie, galette, or fruits (or, worse, you need some for a more complex recipe), try adding some Mascarpone to the heavy cream for extra flavor and richer texture. Mascarpone cheese adds more flavor to the whipped cream and gives it a denser texture. You can counteract the excess acidity with some powdered sugar, but usually, the whipped cream is sweet enough, especially when paired with other desserts. Instead, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract or a shot of brandy for a more well-pronounced flavor, and enjoy!
Crema al Mascarpone
This Mascarpone cheese-based dessert is different from Mascarpone cream, thicker and denser. It’s also often called Mousse al Mascarpone or Mascarpone Mousse, which is a fairer assessment. While the whipped cream is made with chilled Mascarpone and heavy cream, the Crema al Mascarpone is made with room-temperature cheese and eggs. First, the egg whites and yolks should be separated. First, the egg whites are whisked until they form stiff peaks and set aside. Then the yolks are combined with sugar (and other flavoring ingredients like vanilla extract and heavy liquor like rum or whiskey, if the Chef chooses) and beat until fluffy. The egg yolks are combined with soft room-temperature Mascarpone into a homogenous, smooth mixture, with the egg whites gently folded into the mix at the end.
Crema al Mascarpone is typically served chill, often decorated with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings.
Tiramisu, inarguably the most famous Italian dessert, is relatively easy to make as the base is comprised of famous Savoyardi cookies and doesn’t require baking a cake. The cookies are drenched with espresso (or espresso-rum mixture) and layered with a Mascarpone cream made with a recipe similar to Crema al Mascarpone, only without the egg whites. And, frankly speaking, you can just go ahead and use Crema al Mascarpone instead of the classic cream if you don’t want to waste the egg whites.
The iconic Sicilian pastry is typically filled with Ricotta cream, but adding Mascarpone to the cream for a creamier but lighter filling is more common than you might think!
The hardest part of making the cannoli is shaping the tubes (you’ll need to find oven-safe tubes or rods to wrap the pastry dough around), but if you’ve got that part covered, the filling is easy. Mix Ricotta and Mascarpone together at a 1:1 ratio, with 4 tbsp of powdered sugar and a pinch of salt. Let it chill for a couple of hours so that the cream can set, and then pipe it into the shells.
Savillum (Ancient Roman Cheesecake)
Savillum is one of the oldest Italian pastries, a type of cheesecake that was more of a snack than a dessert. According to the recipe saved in De Agri Cultura (the oldest surviving Latin prose written by Roman politician Cato the Elder), it was made by mixing flour and soft goat cheese at a 2:5 ratio with one egg and some honey and baked in terracotta ovens. It was then cubed and enjoyed during or between meals.
If you want to try your hand at making this ancient snack but have no soft goat cheese (chevre) on hand, you can substitute it with Mascarpone, Ricotta, or even cottage cheese. But we’d say start with Mascarpone, if available, for a creamier texture.
Modern No Bake Cheesecake
Mascarpone is often used as an ingredient for a no-bake cheesecake, either outright substituting for cream cheese or mixed with it at a 1:1 ratio for a silkier, richer texture (its high-fat content comes in very handy). Another option is mixing Mascarpone cheese with Ricotta instead of cream cheese, similar to cannoli cream.
If you have neither cream cheese nor Ricotta on hand, you’ll need to combine around 8oz of softened Mascarpone cheese with about 2 cups of heavy cream, whipped beforehand. The combination will give the cheesecake an airy, silky smooth texture.
Mousse di Bresaola (Spuma di Bresaola)
Bresaola Mousse is a pate-type product made by blending Bresaola, a salt-cured beef, with creamy soft cheese and olive oil until you have a homogenous mass on your hand. It’s sometimes called Spuma di Bresaola (Bresaola foam).
Bresaola is coarsely chopped before the blending to make the entire process easier. The cheese used is traditionally either Mascarpone or Ricotta; it depends on the area (and, nowadays, the Chef’s personal preferences). The mousse is often additionally flavored with salt, black pepper, and lemon zest.
Sometimes Mascarpone is used not for its flavor qualities but for its texture, most often as a thickener in risottos. In similar cases, it either substitutes for butter entirely, or the amount of butter used is significantly reduced, with Mascarpone adding the rich fatty component to the dish. Mascarpone-based risotto tends to be creamier but also thicker, with a very faint cheesy flavor. Mascarpone cannot substitute for other cheese in the recipe, so use Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano at the same amount as the original recipe calls for.
Pasta Salmone e Mascarpone
Mascarpone cheese is considered an excellent pairing for salmon, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering cream cheese and lox is a veritable classic.
The difference is that the salmon used for this pasta sauce is not necessarily smoked (though it’s the most common option) and can be substituted for fried or baked salmon. The fish is then combined in a large bowl with Mascarpone cheese, butter, and herbs (most often lemon zest and chopped dill) and emulsified with hot pasta water to make the sauce before adding the pasta itself. The dish is typically made with Penne, Farfalle, or Fettucine pasta.
Salsa al Mascarpone
Similar to American cream cheese, Mascarpone serves as a good base for a sauce or a dip (depending on the thickness). To make Mascarpone salsa, combine softened cheese with your favorite hot sauce, tomato paste (unsweetened), and lemon juice. You can play around with ingredients to your liking, for example, skipping the hot sauce if you want the sauce to be mild or adding herbs like dill, thyme, or basil for extra flavor.
Faraona al Mascarpone
Faraona is an Italian word for Guinea fowl. The Mascarpone-stuffed fowl is an old traditional dish from southern Lombardy. The original recipe calls for an entire bird to be cooked. The fowl is cleaned, rubbed with salt and pepper, and stuffed with a generous amount of Mascarpone cheese. Then it’s lowered into a deep pot with butter, olive oil, and some vegetables (chopped carrots and celery are the traditional choices) and simmered slowly over low heat. Sometimes white wine is added to the mix. The cook has to keep a careful eye on the bird and add a bit of liquid, usually milk, if the dish starts looking dry.
Nowadays, the fowl can be swapped for a chicken to make a similar dish. It can also be made with just chicken pieces, with Mascarpone stuffed under the skin, or added directly to the sauce.
Pizza al Mascarpone, Speck e Noci
Mascarpone is not a typical pizza topping. However, certain varieties utilize it quite well. One of the most popular combinations is adding Tyrolese speck and crushed roasted nuts. Sometimes it’s combined with other ingredients like mushrooms, Gorgonzola, or black olives.
Pizza Quattro Formaggi
There’s a specific system behind deciding the toppings for a truly gourmet Quattro Formaggi pizza: it’s not just four random cheese the Chef likes, it's all about four distinct types of cheese textures balancing each other. You need a type of soft cheese (usually Mozzarella), some kind of blue cheese (usually Gorgonzola), some kind of hard cheese (usually parmesan), and a type of creamy cheese (in this specific case, Mascarpone).
Thick Creamy Soups
Similar to substituting butter in risotto, Mascarpone cheese can either entirely or partially substitute for butter and cream in thick creamy soups. Soups like Cream of Mushroom, Cream of Broccoli, and Cream of Potato are all excellent examples, where a combination of broth and Mascarpone cheese makes for a great texture: thick, smooth, and rich.
Substitute for Heavy Cream, Crème Fraîche, Ricotta Cheese, or Sour Cream
And last but not least: frankly, if you have a recipe that requires some heavy cream, crème fraîche, ricotta cheese, or sour cream, it can usually easily be substituted with Mascarpone cheese. Add a spoonful of softened Mascarpone to omelets and scrambles instead of crème fraîche, add some to your mashed potatoes instead of cream cheese, or add a few spoonfuls to a pan with frying mushrooms instead of sour cream. The differences it’ll add will be subtle (silkier texture, richer mouthfeel), but you may find you prefer it to the original.
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