This “Italian cheese” has intrigued me for some time. It comes from UPenn MS Codex 876 (1780). Just under this one is a recipe for “Cow Head Cheese” – containing not just “two Cow Heads” but also “two Calves Feet” plus “two Calves or Sheepe tongues.” I wasn’t feeling daring enough for this one (and didn’t happen to have a few bovine appendages hanging around), but it certainly represents a nose-to-tail approach! Since I’d rather just carry home a pint of cream and a few lemons from the market, I decided that it was time for Italian Cheese. This recipe only requires three main ingredients: cream, lemons, and sugar, plus almonds and raisins (or whatever you’d like) for garnish.
Grate the rind of two Lemons,
into a Pint of good Cream, add to
it the Juice of one Lemon, &
a quarter of a pound fine Sugar,
Whip it up together, put it in
a small Sieve, & let it stand
all Night. When sent up, stick
it with blanch’d Almonds &
Raisins — it must not be over
The easy availability of these ingredients and the straightforward instructions meant that I followed the instructions above fairly closely. Since the recipe cautioned that “it must not be over whipp’d,” I whisked the cream, lemon, and sugar mixture lightly, by hand, for about 30 seconds. The mixture was thicker than unwhipped heavy cream but not yet thick or airy. I then poured it into my handy sieve … only to have most of it go straight through into the bowl below. Oops. I lined the sieve with two single sheets of cheesecloth and tried again, which worked perfectly. As instructed, I let it sit in the fridge overnight (plus the non-eighteenth-century addition of some plastic wrap on top) to drain and thicken. It had yielded about 2-3 tablespoons of liquid within a few hours; since that amount didn’t seem to increase much overnight, you could probably rush this recipe in 3+ hours if necessary.
I suspected that it might turn out something like our cream cheese, just sweeter and citrusy, perhaps closer in taste to mascarpone than to the tanginess of cream cheese. And this hunch was mostly correct: it’s thinner than cream cheese or mascarpone (think the consistency of a thin custard or non-Greek yogurt), with a rich, sweet creaminess. The lemon zest in addition to the juice adds a nice zip – since I like citrus, I might increase both the zest and the juice next time. It would be fun to try this with orange, with meyer lemons, or with a mix of lemon and orange. Many citrus possibilities!
Since this uses a pint of cream, and depending on how you’re serving it, it could probably yield at least six servings and up to ten. I spooned a few dollops into a bowl and sprinkled slivered almonds on top. I don’t particularly care for raisins but had some dried sour cherries at hand and used those instead – I really liked the lemon/cherry combination. Raisins could of course work, as would currants or even chopped dried apricots or figs. Basically, I think this recipe lends itself to many variations. I ate a few spoonfuls of the concoction on its own and then remembered some spiced jumball cookies (we’ll post the recipe soon) in my freezer. It turns out that jumballs make an excellent vehicle for Italian cheese! It would also work very well spooned over fresh fruit or in a trifle. Italian cheese: easy to make, easy to enjoy.