This past Saturday, October 14th was National Dessert Day! In honor of this auspicious holiday, the Writers’ Program has asked some of our instructors with food writing backgrounds to tell us about their favorite desserts.
Lou Mathews was kind enough to share one of his all-time favorites with us.
This was an article that was published in the LA Times in 2002 and republished here with Lou’s permission.
Mad about Mascarpone
Three years ago I planned my first trip to Italy with my wife, Alison. We would spend Christmas week in Venice, then drift northwest through Bergamo to Milan and cross the Swiss border to the lake city of Lugano, where my father was born and buried.
Christmas week is an ideal time to see Venice. Because it is cold, the city does not smell. Because there are few tourists, even the gondoliers cease preening and relax. Slowly, the charms of a wondrous, intricate city bob to the surface. Venice’s winter cuisine–pasta e fagioli and seafood soups–scents the chilly air. The shop windows glow with gold and silks, fine leatherwork and embossed paper.
On Christmas Eve, returning from afternoon vermouths at Harry’s Bar, we stopped near the Bridge of Sighs, the famous aerial bridge from which the condemned had their last look at freedom. At the front of the Doge’s palace, on a wide veranda 10 feet below the walkway we were crossing, one of Venice’s resident madmen was holding court.
He was dressed as he had been for the past five days, in an enormous black coat, which barely covered his gargantuan belly, black boots and a fur hat. He was pacing and lecturing, and like most Venetians, he was a gourmet. The theme for his impassioned sermon was cheese, specifically mascarpone. As it was Christmas, he bellowed, he wanted mascarpone. His basso profundo rolled and trembled on that word, “mas-kahr-poh-nay.” And if someone would only give him a little money, he pleaded, he would buy some mascarpone. And then he would take his mascarpone home and eat it with a spoon. He lifted his hat and whirled it. “In a civilized country,” the madman roared, “Tutti! Everyone should have mascarpone for Christmas!” It was a stunning, Orson- Wellian performance.
As only a few kind souls went down the steps to give him money, he soon turned his back and stalked away, revealing a second hat hidden behind him, stuffed with lire.
The day after Christmas, we left for Bergamo, Milan, and eventually Lugano, where no mysteries of my father’s life were recovered. The historical registry was closed for the holidays, his lawyer had been dead for 10 years, and the lawyer’s son didn’t wish to talk.
Back at home in Los Angeles, I developed a craving for mascarpone, which was odd because I’d never tasted that triple-cream cheese. It was the madman’s fault. He’d intoned that word with such longing and a promise of richness, that it had to be good.
It is. I found a recipe for budino, chocolate pudding made more luscious with Marsala and mascarpone. With my first taste I understood two things: Everyone should have mascarpone for Christmas, and that the man wasn’t mad at all.
(Recipe Adapted from “Cucina Rustica,” by Viana la Place and Evan Kleiman)
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 pound mascarpone
1/4 cup Marsala
1/2 cup whipped cream
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted
In a large metal bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Place bowl over a saucepan that is half filled with simmering water, and whisk mixture until “ribbons” form. Still whisking, add vanilla, cocoa and mascarpone. Beat until smooth. Slowly add Marsala, whisking constantly until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and spoon into pudding bowls, about 1/2 cup each. Chill until set. Pipe the whipped cream on top and sprinkle with walnuts.
Lou will be on the schedule this coming Spring! Look out for his name and class schedule in 2024.