Time and temperature are the secrets to a successful batch of mascarpone. Other than that all you have to work with are cream, some acid, a thermometer and a pan. Simple, right? Right…
The formula is one pint of heavy cream and one pint of half-and-half (all of it un-homogenized and un-stabilized if at all possible), which I have found gives a firmer texture than all cream (though that works too). As for the acid, you’ll need 1/4 teaspoon of tartaric acid (cream of tartar) OR 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice OR two tablespoons of white vinegar. Different people have different preferences, I like the powdered acid since it’s always reliable. The acidity of both lemons and vinegar, depending on the variety, can fluctuate.
Most mascarpone recipes begin with a double boiler because the heat is gentler. I prefer a small straight-sided saucepan. Yes, there is a risk of over-heating, however 1 quart of dairy isn’t much, and it tends to get lost inside a typical double boiler. It comes maybe one inch up the side of the pan, which makes it hard to get a reliable thermometer reading. A small pan gives me more depth, and as long as the pan is thick, very little risk of overheating. So then, pour your cream (or mix of cream and half-and-half) into the pan. Place it over medium-low heat.
I should insert, for those who might be inclined toward flavor infusions of some sort, that this is an excellent time to get busy. I can imagine a small cheesecloth bag containing perhaps citrus rinds, maybe spices or herbs, even coffee beans being dropped in at this point. Cream, because it is so full of fat, is a sponge for flavor.
While the cream mixture is slowly coming up to temperature, mix your tartaric acid into about a tablespoon of water. Stir it up and keep it ready. If you’re planning on using a liquid acid, you can skip this step.
Now start watching your temperature closely. You’ll want to bring the mix up to temperature slowly, over the course of ten or fifteen minutes. Once it hits about 185…
…give your acid mixture one last stir and pour it in.
Begin to stir again. This will help the mixture curdle.
Now then, you want to maintain a temperature of right around 190 for about five minutes, until you see evidence that the acid is having an effect. What will that effect be, exactly? A slight thickening of your mixture. No, it won’t break into curds like other types of cheese mixtures will. However the thickness will tell you that your uncoiled proteins are starting to coagulate and interlock with one another, slowing the mixture’s flow. Instead of making lots of little curds (think ricotta or quark) it’s rather like, in fact it’s very like, in fact it’s exactly like, making a single large curd.
Keep stirring gently until…ah yes: there. About the thickness of a finished crème anglaise. See those little bulging waves? When you stir the mixture slowly, that’s what you’ll get. And no, those bubbles are not evidence of boiling, what you’re seeing is just some light foam the whisk created. For extra verification that you’ve reached the right point, remove the pan from the heat, insert a spoon, turn it over and run your finger down the back side. Does it make a clearly defined stripe? Then you’re done.
Set the pan aside and allow it to cool down to room temperature. This might be another prime opportunity, if you were so inclined, to introduce a flavoring in the form of an extract…if you wanted to…I’m just sayin’. Park it in the fridge for 24 hours. Yes, I drink Diet Coke. So what? I like the taste.
The next day, grab a medium-sized strainer or colander and set it in/over a pot or large bowl.
Line it with at least two layers of cheese cloth.
Take the pan out of the refrigerator and pour the mixture — which by now will be a good deal thicker — into the strainer.
Don’t worry if the last of it seems rather runny, it still has a good deal of sitting yet to do. Return the cheese to the refrigerator, lightly covered with plastic wrap, for another 24 hours.
At the end of that period it will be thick, with a texture somewhere between sour cream and cream cheese.
Oh and…here’s a quiz: what would you get if you employed this technique not with cream but with whole milk? Answer: paneer. And if you tried it with goat’s milk? Answer: goat cheese. Pretty cool.