Mascarpone: Italian for easy, elegant desserts

by Terry B on December 12, 2007

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

The holiday season is upon us, which means parties galore. Which means it’s also the season of the little black dress. Women know little black dresses as the simple little tricks in their closets that—with a few accessories—make them look elegant, festive and very, very lovely. Men know them as the things that make us lose our train of thought at parties, because they’re just that good. Marion has one that works like a charm, every time.

Well, when it comes to dinner parties, this 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% to 75% 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.

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 Tastes of Italia, the same issue of the magazine that led to last week’s Rosemary Sage Chops. If I get a couple/few recipes out of an entire cookbook, I feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Well, so far I’ve gotten two from one issue of a magazine—and I don’t think I’m done yet.

Mascarpone Cream Desserts
Makes 6 to 8 servings

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

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.

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.

Booze it up. Soak some raisins and diced bananas for at least 4 hours and up to overnight in rum. Drain the fruit and stir it into the cream. Garnish with sliced almonds. I used golden raisins because they sounded more visually appealing than standard issue raisins, but either would work. The rum plumped the raisins and added a nice all-grown-up edge to the dessert. I used clear rum so it wouldn’t discolor the cream.

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 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.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 12/12/2007

With friends like these, who needs amplifiers? As this album proves, some of the best music happens after the gig, back at the motel.

Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan. Contemplating wildlife in our lives, from sea to shining sea.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

VegeYum December 12, 2007 at 10:46 am

Mascarpone is a wonderful food. I remember discovering it when it was really hard to get here and I had to travel great distances to buy it. Then I shifted to Sydney and I could buy 10 different brands in any supermarket I went into. Luckily by the time I returned here it had become more common.

Patricia Scarpin December 12, 2007 at 2:46 pm

I really like what you have done here, Terry – such a beautiful dessert and yet incredibly simple to put together.
And I don’t need to tell that the version with lime juice/zest caught my attention, right? :)

Terry B December 12, 2007 at 3:15 pm

VegeYum—It’s also good in savory dishes, an avenue we plan to explore.

Patricia—As soon as we thought of the lime version, I thought of you! If you or Joao ever decide to stop using limes, the bottom of the market will drop out.

Carolyn December 12, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Wow! All I can say is W00t, W00t, W00t!

Mr. Cheeseburger 9000 December 12, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Mascarpone is like diamonds. It’s amazing by itself. It’s amazing with other things. I think you could stop wars by giving everyone mascarpone.

Terry B December 12, 2007 at 8:14 pm

Carolyn—All I can say is thanks, thanks, thanks!

Mr. Cheeseburger 9000—As long as none of the combatants has dairy issues, you may be on to something.

Lydia December 12, 2007 at 11:12 pm

It’s great to have a few easy and elegant desserts in the arsenal and, as I’m not much of a baker, any dessert that doesn’t need baking is at the top of my list. This one is going on the list at once — great idea, beautifully executed.

JEP December 13, 2007 at 1:36 am

Love the richness…I’m all about the full fat for this particular recipe!

ann December 13, 2007 at 12:41 pm

I like mixing marscarpone with vanilla beans and sugar and serving balsamic strawberries over it. And if I’ve got leftovers, I mix them all up and freeze it. It becomes a really sophisticated pseudo-gelato.
But you’re right, it is the little black dress, and you’ve just solved my dressing conundrum! I was sitting here, catching up on blogs while at the same time trying to decide what to wear to my company’s Christmas party that is a. sophisticated and b. will stand up to the 5 inches of snow we’re supposed to get this evening, and, et voila! My little black dress. You’re a genius ;-)

Terry B December 13, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Lydia—I’m so glad to hear someone else admit to not being much of a baker! I keep telling myself I should try to get comfortable with my inner baker, but then so many other shiny objects catch my eye and distract me.

JEP—I have to say, the reduced fat versions of the ricotta and sour cream did just fine. But I bet the full fat versions would make it luxurious beyond belief. On the other hand, just as really high-end audio equipment often delivers more music than the ear can hear, perhaps the palate can only perceive so much fat.

Ann—A little black dress is always the answer. Except when the answer is bacon. But that’s an entirely different question.

Freya December 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm

I always keep a pot of Mascarpone and Ricotta in the fridge (they both keep, the sealed varieties that is, for ages and ages) for making delicious quick desserts!

marie December 13, 2007 at 6:24 pm

Mmmmm, I’ve made this many times but never added sour cream! I’ll definitely have to try that, sounds fantastic!!

Mary Coleman December 14, 2007 at 2:34 am

Wow. What about creme fraiche. I always seem to have that rather than sour cream. Looks so good. Can’t wait to try it!

Terry B December 14, 2007 at 5:45 am

Freya—After trying this recipe, I think I’m going to have to keep mascarpone and ricotta around more often too.

Marie and Mary—The sour cream adds just the slightest tangy touch to lighten the creaminess of this dessert. I’m sure creme fraiche would serve the same purpose.

Pam in NBPT December 14, 2007 at 7:02 pm

Another fabulous post, you never cease to amaze me! I love the idea of layering ladyfingers with this…sort of like individual tiramisus! Love it, love your blog, love your recipes and most especially your writing style!

Terry B December 14, 2007 at 7:52 pm

Pam—Thank you so much! If I were still capable of blushing, I would be doing so now.

Maryann December 14, 2007 at 11:27 pm

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Now I have found yours, and I’m happy I did. I like the concept of Blue Kitchen that you describe in your profile. Beautiful photography, mascarpone cream welcoming me…what’s not to like here? I have a summertime post that is simply blueberries and mascarpone with a sprinkling of sugar. It was wonderful. I’m posting a link to you and will visit again in the very near future. Happy belated blog anniversary btw :)

Terry B December 15, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Thanks, Maryann! And I’m absolutely going to try the home-cooked chickpeas in your current post.

Katie December 16, 2007 at 4:27 pm

I’ve never worked with marscapone! Silly me!

Terry B December 16, 2007 at 4:37 pm

This was my first time too, Katie. The recipe was so simple and looked so beautiful, I had to try it. Now I know I’ll be looking for others. Marion’s already found a savory recipe we want to try.

Suzana December 16, 2007 at 10:55 pm

Hi there! Those desserts look stunning and I’m sure are very delicious – mascarpone is such a great ingredient. Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a nice note :)

SteamyKitchen December 20, 2007 at 6:11 pm

I LOVE that photo!!!

Marcia December 31, 2007 at 2:46 am

Hi,

I like the presentation of the fruit in martini glasses. Do have any recipes for main entrees or main dishes that can be presented in a martini glass. Thank you.

Terry B December 31, 2007 at 3:25 am

Marcia—I haven’t made it myself, but look for recipes for ceviche or seviche, raw fish “cooked” or cured in citrus juice. Both Peru and Ecuador claim to have invented this fresh, lively, clean tasting appetizer. It is often served in martini glasses.

Amanda June 5, 2009 at 9:20 am

I know this is an old post, but it just saved my night! I came home to find that the dessert I made this morning didn’t set up, and I needed a replacement in a hurry. This is perfect! I’m going to serve it with some poached rhubarb and a splash of strawberry liqueur (which I managed to salvage from the previous dessert).

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Terry B June 5, 2009 at 1:07 pm

You’re welcome, Amanda! I love when older posts see a little action, by the way.

Mary Christ October 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm

I adore mascarpone, and I intend to use this recipe for a party tonight!!
I wonder if I could use yogurt in place of sour cream, I also love Greek yogurt, more than sour cream.
Thanks

Terry B October 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Mary Christ—Yogurt can often be substituted for sour cream, especially if you use a good quality thick yogurt. FAGE Greek yogurt is fairly thick, for instance. If you’re doing this for a party, though, you might want to have some sour cream on hand as an emergency back-up.

Barb M August 3, 2010 at 2:20 pm

As said before, I know the original post was from a few years ago but I had to let you know that I am going to make the Mascarpone Cream Dessert recipe today. I’ve never used mascarpone in a recipe before and have always been intrigued by the chefs on Food Network who cook with it. I’m going to go with the low fat ricotta and sour cream to cut down on the fat content because it still sounds nice the rich to me. After I send this I will be subscribing to your website. Thanks for all the great recipes and great writing style, a pleasure to read.

Terry B August 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Thanks, Barb M! I hope you like the results.

Barb M September 8, 2010 at 1:44 am

Where does the time go! I really did mean to let you know how the Mascarpone Cream dessert turned out. It was absolutely wonderful! My family liked it so much I made it again last week! I used low fat ricotta and sour cream and the final product was rich, creamy and filling! this recipe is a keeper! Thanks!

Alexandra Jones December 9, 2011 at 6:05 pm

“Standard issue raisins.” Love it!

Joan R February 9, 2014 at 8:09 am

I love your recipe and have made it innumerable times. I passed it on to my daughter and she makes it. It has saved many a dinner. I have paired it with fruit, chocolate, you name it – my favorite pairing is with Rhubarb blood orange compote from Deborah Madison’s cookbook – The Savory Way. However, over the years I have gotten lazy and if I don’t have all the ingredients, I skip either the marscapone (heavens!) or ricotta. And….I only use greek yogurt. So thanks for the basic bones of the recipe – a great one. Also – another sacrilege – sometimes I add a bit of cardamom depending on what I am pairing it with.

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