A Season of Chanterelles
I suppose to some, the essential question would be why? Why would I awaken in the middle of the night to slip into the deep-mountain woods at dawn, just for the sake of finding a food I could buy for far less trouble?
If you have to ask the question, I wonder if you will you ever be satisfied by the answers I give?
Have you ever bellied-up to the earth and pressed your cheek against a patch of moss so cool and green that it seems to have pooled every notion you ever had of the color? Have you stood in a place so still that the only sounds you could hear were the blood pushing past your eardrums and your lungs pulling in air? Have you turned a corner to see hundreds of mushrooms scuttle across the forest floor and dropped to you knees in submission, surrender, to the wonder?
Mushroom hunting demands reawakening to sensations both uncomfortable and thrilling. Bewilderment. Getting lost. The elevator-drop of falling in love.
You don't think you can fall in love with fungus? One time an old Italian gentleman leaned in with his cappuccino-laced accent and reminded me that mushrooms are like snakes, equal parts magnetism and danger. I challenge you to smash your face down into a basket of freshly-picked chanterelles, close your eyes, and languidly inhale. Does their scent of warm crayons and slow-roasted sweet potatoes not tickle the same buttons as mother's milk and the first time a hand electric with desire brushed your bare skin?
Kneeling, I'm small beneath the the trapeze of clouds and conifers. At the intersection of hot resin air and the damp sound-draining mats of kinnikinnick, I pluck one, orange as fresh turmeric. Chanterelle. The doughy weight of it against my palm. Margins curling like a salt-stricken slug. Wrinkly ridges, like convolusions on the surface of my brain. More closely related to an animal than a plant. I hold it to my nose as I roll onto my back and take in the limitless Colorado sky.
The snake charmer offers up food for my dreams on the long snow-blind nights of winter. It was a season of chanterelles.
The following recipes resulted from having an abundance of chanterelles. Sometimes it is just fun to play with an ingredient. The cake recipe was adapted from my Gran's 1940's Betty Crocker cookbook. A quarter cup of powdered chanterelles is more than you might imagine. If you have less than that, make up for the difference with more flour. The idea for chanterelle buttercream frosting came from pastry chef David Beer of Nostrana in Oregon, and the actual recipe was adapted from Porche Lovely's Church of Cupcakes. The the idea for making chanterelle creme brulee came from a conversation with Porche, and the recipe is adapted from Fine Cooking.
1/2 c. butter (room temperature)
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
1/4 c. chanterelle powder (dried chanterelles buzzed up in a spice grinder)
1 tsp. salt
3 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1. Cream together the butter and sugar using the paddle attachment on your stand mixer, or a hand-held electric mixer.
2. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating each into the butter and sugar before adding the next. Continue to beat this mixture until it lightens in color and gets quite fluffy.
3. Sift in the flour, chanterelle powder, salt, and baking powder and stir them slowly just until they are fully incorporated.
4. Add the milk and vanilla and again, only stir until the ingredients come together to form an even batter.
5. Pour the batter into a buttered and floured 9" springform pan, smooth the top, and drop it on the counter once or twice to force out any air bubbles. Bake the cake at 350˚ (F) for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out free of crumbs.
6. Let the cake cool completely on a rack before attempting to decorate it.
1/2 c. butter (room temperature)
3 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. chanterelles, diced
1/2 c. cream
1. In a small pan over low heat, let the chanterelles steep in the cream for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the cream come to room temperature. Refrigerate it until it is cold. Strain out the mushrooms and save them to use in another recipe, like a baked rice and mushroom casserole.
2. With the paddle attachment of a stand mixer or a hand-held electric mixer, add 1/2 c. of powdered sugar at a time to the softened butter.
3. With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in the chanterelle-infused cream. Turn the mixer to high and let it run until the frosting is very fluffy.
Candied Chanterelle Mushrooms
1/3 - 1/2 c. tiny perfect chanterelles
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1. In a small pan over low heat, combine the sugar and water.
2. Once the sugar has dissolved, add in the chanterelles. Let them bathe in the sugar syrup for 15 minutes, occasionally turning them over and making certain all their surfaces get touched by the syrup.
3. Turn off the heat and let the mushrooms and syrup come to room temperature.
To assemble the Chanterelle Cake with Chanterelle Buttercream and Candied Chanterelles
I made this as a single layer cake because I'm a lazy baker. If you are more ambitious than I, feel free to cut the cake in two and frost between the layers.
Start by using a wooden skewer or a fork to poke many small holes in the cake. Drizzle two tablespoons of the chanterelle syrup that resulted from candying the mushrooms over the cake. While the that is absorbing, use the remaining syrup to make a cocktail by mixing it with equal parts vodka and two parts fizzy water.
Slather the chanterelle frosting onto the cake. If you are the person who made it into two layers, you will probably want to make a crumb-coat to be fancy. Me, I don't mind some crumbs floating around in my frosting, particularly if I manage to make it look swirly enough.
Finish by placing the candied chanterelles atop the cake. These are the bit that maintained the most chanterelle flavor, so I'd be tempted to make more if I had them to spare. Plus, they look darned attractive. Who could resist that shade of orange?
1 3/4 c. cream
1/2 c. fresh chanterelles
4 egg yolks
pinch of salt
1/4 c + 4 tsp. sugar
1. In a small pan over medium-low, heat the chanterelles and cream just until you start to see bubbles come to the surface. Turn off the heat and let the mushrooms sit in the cream for 10-15 minutes.
2. In a medium mixing bowl (preferably with a pour spout), whisk together the egg yolks, 1/4 c. sugar, and pinch of salt.
3. Pour 1/2 c. of the infused cream through a strainer into the egg mixture, and gently whisk it. This is where you are bringing up the temperature of the eggs slowly so that you don't end up with a bowl of scrambled egg-like mess. Pour the remaining cream, again through the strainer, leaving behind the last little bit, as it likely contains some dirt, and gently whisk the mixture until it is evenly combined.
4. Use a spoon to skim off any air bubbles you may have made in whisking too vigorously. Save the strained-out chanterelles and use them in another recipe, such as soup.
5. Pour the custard, again through the strainer (I'd normally skip this step, but the strainer was already dirty from straining the mushrooms, so no biggie) into four ramekins or tea cups. Nestle the ramekins into a baking dish, and pour boiling water into the baking dish around them, so that the water is 1" below their rims. This seems like a pain in the butt, but it will help to ensure the eggs don't go whack and over-cook. This recipe has very few ingredients, so it is important that the texture turns out spot-on. You are aiming for smooooooth.
6. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and ever-so-gently place it into an oven that has been preheated to 300˚ (F). Bake the custards until they are set 1/3 of the way into the middle. The center should still make giggly waves when you nudge a ramekin. Remove the custards from the oven, and let them cool on a rack until they reach room temperature. Refrigerate them until they are cold.
7. Sprinkle the top of each ramekin with a teaspoon of sugar. Pick up the ramekin and bang it against the side of your hand until the sugar is evenly distributed. Here's where the magic happens. You're going to melt the sugar. Some will say you can do this under the broiler, but I've never found it to work. That method ends up melting the custard and not the sugar. If you have a torch, whether a fancy little kitchen one or a small soldering one from the hardware store, use that. If you are like me, you are probably trying to figure out if you can melt the sugar on top somehow with matches. From experience, I can tell you it can be done, but it takes forever. Instead, I used one of those hand-held gun-like butane lighters with a trigger to melt the sugar atop my creme brulee and found it to work fairly well. Any way you do it, you are aiming to heat the sugar just until it melts and turns pleasantly brown (not black). That's what will give you the pleasantly crackling crust that everyone loves to bust through with their spoon.