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Mascarpone: Italian for easy, elegant desserts

Delicate, creamy mascarpone cheese is the starting point for countless impressive, easy-to-make desserts.

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    Mascarpone is a buttery rich double-cream or triple-cream dessert cheese from Italy. Simply top it with fresh or dried fruit for an elegant, no-fuss dessert.
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When it comes to dinner parties, marscapone is the little black dress of desserts. Simple, sophisticated, infinitely accessorizable. At its heart is mascarpone, a buttery rich double-cream or triple-cream dessert cheese from Italy. Made from cow’s milk and typically containing 60 percent to 75 percent milk fat, it is most often known as that intoxicatingly silky cream found in tiramisù.

A quick search on epicurious.com turns up more than 120 recipes for this versatile cheese. Still, they’re the first to admit that "this delicately flavored cheese needs little embellishment other than being topped with fruit."

The recipe below is almost that simple. A half dozen ingredients thrown into a bowl and beaten with an electric mixer into mascarpone cream. And then a little fruit, nuts, chocolate or what have you to accessorize it. That’s it – no double boilers, no baking, no fuss. So easy for something that tastes so over-the-top decadent and dresses up so beautifully in the right setting. We used smallish vintage martini glasses. Teacups, mismatched or otherwise, could work just as well – especially with a couple of small, plainish, lemony cookies on each saucer. Obviously, the key here is scale. These desserts are served in small portions – serving dishes should be scaled appropriately.

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An unexpected bonus for something so delicate tasting is how surprisingly sturdy mascarpone cream is. I mixed up a batch and then started experimenting with the fruit I was adding for one version. Then I fussed over one photo set-up until I decided it wouldn't work and created a completely different one at the opposite end of the apartment. After the first shot, I decided it would be good to show two variations, and Marion helped me put together the second dessert. The whole time, the mascarpone cream was sitting out on the kitchen counter, no wilting, no running, no collapsing. And the first prepared dessert looked just as good in the last shot as it did in the first. In fact, we even had the remaining cream the next night with more fresh berries, and spending the night in the fridge (covered, of course) hadn’t affected it in the slightest. To me, this says you can whip up the mascarpone cream before company shows up and dress it up when you’re ready to serve dessert. If the kitchen’s particularly hot, you may want to keep it in the fridge.

This recipe is based on one found in the magazine Tastes of Italia.

Mascarpone Cream Desserts
Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 ounces mascarpone cheese
8 ounces ricotta cheese, drained*
4 ounces sour cream*
1 scant cup powdered sugar*
1/4 teaspoon almond extract *
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

* see Kitchen Notes

1. Make the mascarpone cream. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer for 5 to 7 minutes. I started the mixer on low to incorporate powdered sugar without having a Three Stooges moment, then increased the speed to medium high.

That’s all there is to making the cream. See? Told you it was easy. Now here are a couple of ideas for turning it into fabulous desserts.

2. Bring on the berries. We added fresh blackberries and sliced strawberries. Raspberries and blueberries would be wonderful too. The tart sweetness of fresh berries nicely balances with the sweet richness of the cream.

3. Get creative. The creamy richness of this dessert invites experimentation. Here are a few more ideas to get you started: Next time we make it, we want to try diced fresh mango and sliced strawberries, substituting lime zest for the lemon zest and perhaps drizzling a tiny bit of lime juice over each serving. Fresh mint or basil could play a role, too. The magazine recipe also suggested serving mascarpone cream over ladyfingers and shaving chocolate curls on top. I would definitely use dark chocolate for its bitter flavor note to balance the overall sweetness.

Kitchen Notes

Controlling fat content, sort of. Let’s be honest here. This dessert is made with two cheeses and sour cream – with one of the cheeses, by definition, being made with 60 to 75 percent milk fat. It is a rich, luxurious-tasting indulgence, not a Weight Watchers-friendly treat. But its very richness means that a small serving is quite satisfying. To make it a little less calorific, I used part skim ricotta cheese and reduced fat sour cream. Marion is the sour cream aficionado in our household; she says that Breakstone is the only reduced fat sour cream worth the name. And yes, there are fat-free versions of ricotta and sour cream. Perhaps in recipes where they are bit players, they might be all right. But they are stars in this recipe. Ersatz fat-free ingredients have nowhere to hide. It will be awful – choose another dessert.

Easy on the powdered sugar. Avoid the temptation to take the "more is better" approach. If anything, I might reduce the cup of sugar next time, removing maybe a tablespoon or so. Definitely do use powdered sugar, not granulated – since you don’t cook it, granulated sugar will never dissolve into the mix, and you’ll end up with a gritty texture.

Same with the almond extract. Measure carefully and don’t overdo – it can quickly overpower everything. I used pure (or real) almond extract, not imitation. Some things I’ve read say never use imitation; others say it’s fine to substitute. My own take, especially with a recipe like this one with so few ingredients, is that every ingredient needs to be the best it can.

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of food bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by The Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own and they are responsible for the content of their blogs and their recipes. All readers are free to make ingredient substitutions to satisfy their dietary preferences, including not using wine (or substituting cooking wine) when a recipe calls for it. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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