Well, That Was Fun!

I volunteered to make dinner for our congregation again this year, as part of our Stewardship Pledge campaign.  It was the second year doing what we call our “Gratitude Dinner.”  Last year we did Mediterranean, including tzatziki, hummus, pita bread, meitzanasalata and Chicken and Feta pies – and lots and lots of baklava.

This year, the Session requested Italian.  The first thought was lasagna.  Our ma made a killer lasagna, and my brother Mike has carried on that tradition quite nicely.  I can whip up a pretty good one, too.  But then I got to thinking…I’d have to come up with a vegetarian version, a meat version, and a – gulp – gluten free version, to satisfy all the dietary concerns of the members.  Easy enough to do, I suppose, but frankly, lasagna, even when paired with a salad just seemed a little heavy, a little dull, and a little too, well, average.  It’s also not something that I felt could be served family-style.  That was a big deal.  We served the 2011 dinner family-style, which was not done before at FPCe, and people loved it.  It added to the festive, communal feeling we wanted.  Lasagna is fantastic – don’t get me wrong.  But by the time the dish got to the third or fourth person out of the eight in each serving section, it would look like roadkill, frankly.

Some other kind of pasta?  Forget it.  Spaghetti dinners are like Bibles in a church – there are a bunch of them in each one.  It’s a toss-off way to make a quick and cheap bit of money.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the Gratitude Dinner is different.  So, I set a few challenges for myself: no pasta, gluten-free as much as possible, and, just for fun, with a focus on seasonal, locally available, and relatively healthy dishes, and oh yeah, mascarpone.  I wanted some desserts made with mascarpone because, well, mascarpone.

The first challenge, I knew, would be the mascarpone.  Northeast Tennessee is not known as a paragon of culinary opportunity.  After all, this is the place where I encountered a sweet but parochial deli employee at the local grocery who shared with me her excitement at having figured out – after three years – how to make a beef sandwich that “tastes just like Arby’s!”  I am not going there, folks.  I did find mascarpone at the Earth Fare in Johnson City, but at about $5.50 for 8 ounces, it would have taken about my whole budget just for dessert.  We’re talking 100 people, here, after all.

So why not just make my own?  Challenge accepted.  After plugging around the internet for several hours, I learned a couple of things:
1) Restaurants cheat.  A lot.  While looking through forum posts, I learned that many restaurants make tiramisu with cream cheese, and one even admitted to using Cool Whip!
2) Tiramisu is sort of like “Cappuccino.”  If the only cappuccino you’ve ever tasted is the kind you get at a Kwik E Mart, then you have no clue what cappuccino really is.  Likewise tiramisu.  It may still be tasty, but if all you’ve had was stuff made with Cool Whip and graham crackers, you just don’t need to be giving me advice on how to make it, much less mascarpone.

Most people said “boil whole milk and curdle it with lemon juice, then strain it.”  That wasn’t good enough.  First of all, that is paneer.  I love paneer, and enjoy making it.  But it isn’t creamy and luscious.  I did find an interesting research paper, published through the California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly.  It was written with great details.  The researchers measured the moisture and fat content of various commercially available mascarpone brands.  They worked on mouth-feel, texture, proportions of cream to milk, and more, as well as tests using various curdling agents.  Interestingly, they did not use the one curdling agent I knew was most traditionally used when making mascarpone – tartaric acid.  But, since I already knew I would not be able to find any here (and did not have time and money to order online), I was looking for alternatives, anyway.  This paper included lemon juice, citric acid, and lactic acid.  It looked like the perfect road map to mascarpone.  I read it three times, meticulously calculated the ingredients, and decided to make a sample run, using citric acid.  I was happy to find it in the aisle with canning supplies at my local grocery store.

Following the process to the “T”, I made a test batch that looked gorgeous; creamy, silky, even, dense and luscious.  And then I tasted it.  The best description I could come up with was “creamed aspirin.”  What a letdown!  Back to the research paper, to see what I did wrong.  I could find no errors.  No miscalculations, no missed steps.  As far as I can tell, the only variable was the citric acid.  It is possible that commercially available citric acid is different from what the laboratory at the Agricultural College at Cal Poly was using.  I may never know.

What I did know, was that I had to come up with something else.  I tried a smaller amount of the citric acid.  It still tasted bad and would not curdle.  Fine.  Lemon juice would have to do.  And that bucket of creamed aspirin would make a nice acidifier for the garden.  Using the same proportions of cream and milk, I went at it with lemon juice.  But I just could not get it to curdle.  Then I realized that I was using ultra-pastuerized milk and cream.  Ultra-pastuerized dairy products have no cultures – not an iota of bacteria to work with.  A thorough search of stores in the two neighboring towns turned up no dairy that was NOT ultra-pastuerized.  I would have to either find a raw milk supplier, or give up, it would seem.  The raw milk issue was more than I could manage.  $8 a gallon for whole milk, and no one had cream.  Grrr.  As a last-ditch effort, I decided to try something a little different: a combination of ultra-pastuerized cream and, instead of milk, cultured whole buttermilk from Homestead Creameries.  Their buttermilk is beyond anything I have ever had.  It is as thick as sour cream, and I often use it in the place of sour cream.  I have it on hand all the time.  I was thinking that the cultures in the buttermilk would be enough to react with the lemon juice to make a good curd.  It didn’t.  Brought to a simmer with the cream, it was luscious and thick, but it would not curdle.  Disgusted, I put the pot in the fridge and stomped to bed.

When I took it out of the fridge the next morning, though, I found that it has solidified into a beautiful cream, thicker than sour cream, but not quite as thick as cream cheese.  Into the cheesecloth-lined strainer it went, and by the end of the day, I had a bowl of mascarpone – perhaps slightly tangier than a true mascarpone, but it would do nicely for what I had in mind.  So, into mass production I went, until I had enough.  Here’s how I put it all together:

Mascarpone Crema with Honey-poached Autumn Fruits

4 parts mascarpone
4 parts cream cheese
1 part cream simmered with scraped vanilla beans and their seeds
1 part locally produced honey

Blend in the food processor and portion evenly into punch cups (I filled 65 punch cups just over half-way.  Refrigerate to set (overnight was great).  On the day of the dinner I poached a mixture of locally grown pears, figs, and plums in honey syrup.  These were drained and cooled, then placed on top of the creme.  The garnish was ricciarelli, a gluten-free (more on that, later*) almond cookie – perhaps one could call it a frangipane biscuit.

I decided that I wanted a chocolate option, too, so I made Mascarpone Chocolate Mousse with the rest.  Using 70% cacao chocolate chips, I made a ganache.  To six cups of ganache I added 12 egg yolks, then folded in the whipped whites from those eggs.  Garnish was a whirl of barely sweetened whipped cream and a ricciarelli.

*While the recipe I found claims these are gluten free, I was unable to find almond paste that did not have wheat starch as a binder.  So, I was forced to make my own, using pretty much equal parts blanched and skinned almonds, powdered sugar (making sure it was gluten free, also), bound with corn syrup and tapioca starch.

Having conquered mascarpone and thus dessert, I was free to go on to the rest of the menu.  Stay tuned….