Mascarpone (mahs-kar-POH-neh) is not actually a cheese (no starter or rennet is used to produce it), but it is always included in the cheese family when the subject of relatives come up. And in the Italian arsenal of cheeses it stands tall. A rich and lush cow's milk cheese, mascarpone is double or triple cream, which means heavy-duty milk fat (up to 75 percent).
The beauty of this cheese lies not only in its richness and incomparable goodness, but also in its versatility. As you will note below, I have used mascarpone in a simple application pertaining to a couple of pasta dishes. However, mascarpone is an essential and important ingredient when making tiramisu (though a lot of places, because of the cost, cut it out of a tiramisu recipe and go only with whipped cream).
Mascarpone will hold its own in a simple dessert in which fresh berries are folded into it. I like to add some confectioners's sugar to mascarpone, whip it until it is creamy-smooth, then layer it in a parfait glass with slices of fresh strawberries.
Another way I use mascarpone is to swirl a tablespoon (or two) into a tomato sauce for pasta. The mascarpone gives the tomato sauce a luxuriously rich flavor (the idea is that it cuts some of the acidity in the tomatoes).
Domestic brands of mascarpone are every bit as good (and a lot less expensive) as imported brands, so buy locally.
Fusilli with Mascarpone and Prosciutto
The silky richness of the mascarpone cheese mingling with the sweetness of the prosciutto is the flavor center of this dish. The mascarpone is dropped over the cooked pasta in tablespoons, and mixed into the pasta just to coat. The complement to this dish is the elegant prosciutto di parma; it stands on its own delicate flavor, so no cooking is necessary.
Serves 4 as a first course
3/4 pound fusilli or other spiral-shaped pasta
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 pound prosciutto di Parma, sliced thin and chopped coarse
freshly ground pepper to taste
Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain, thoroughly. Put the cooked pasta into a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add the butter and stir to combine. Add the Parmesan and stir once more to combine. Add the mascarpone, dropping it in dollops over the pasta, toss gently just to combine. Add the prosciutto and combine with the pasta. Portion among four heated pasta bowls. Serve.
You can use this basic idea to create a pasta dish with four cheeses. Once the pasta has been cooked, add it to the sauté pan. Add the butter. Blend in a combination of cheeses (I use ¾ cups of mascarpone, 1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola, 1 cup grated Asiago, and 2 ounces Parmesan). Cook and stir until the cheeses have blended. You don't need to use any heavy cream (that's a dish for another time); the combination of cheeses will carry the dish Portion among four heated pasta bowls. Serve.
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