In his Fat Duck cook book, Heston Blumenthal had a fascinating point about how our brain interprets flavor, and how our memories and past experiences with flavor can be even more evocative than the actual flavors themselves. For example, vanilla is not inherently sweet, yet when we taste vanilla our brains naturally associate it with sweetness. It was such a simple concept, but one I had never thought of before. Ultimately all these flavors and aromas are just chemical compounds triggering reactions in the bubbling chemistry of our brains. How we actually interpret them is more subjective. That’s why I was so captivated by a sweet mushroom for dessert.
Candy Cap mushrooms (Lactarius camphoratus, fragilis, and rubidus) smell like maple syrup, caramel, and slightly of curry, which also gave them the less-used moniker “curry cap” mushrooms. The mushrooms I’m using were gathered in California, but they grow across the Northwest U.S. and Europe. I don’t remember where I first heard about candy cap mushrooms, but they’ve been something I’ve wanted to try for a few years now. But I’m glad to have waited, as it was only in 2012 that scientists isolated the compound responsible for the candy cap’s unique flavor. Sotolon is an aromatic ester that smells of maple syrup, sherry, and caramel in low doses, and curry in higher concentrations.
As you might imagine, chefs have been playing with the candy cap’s unusual flavoring for quite some time, from Candy Cap cookies, ice cream, and even crème brulee. I knew my first candy cap experience would be with the crème brulee. The perfect vehicle for capturing exotic and delicate flavors, crème brulee may be my favorite dessert…after lemon tart. Full of eggs, sugar, and cream, a well-made crème brulee can carry a wide range of flavors, from vanilla to lavender. I had no doubts it could handle mushroom. I soaked the dried mushrooms in warm cream for about 30 minutes, then strained the mushrooms out. Some egg yolks and sugar were whipped into the cream, with a small sprinkling of minced candy cap on the bottom of each ramekin. After the custards were baked and cooled overnight, I topped them with sugar and brulee’d them with a Bernzomatic TS3000KC Propane torch. You know, like grandma used to use.
The resulting crème brulee’s did have a lovely maple flavor, with perhaps a little curry peeking through. Nothing mushroomy about it, though, which was odd, surprising, and perhaps a little disappointing. It’s funny how something can taste completely unlike its “natural” state; a mushroom with no mushroom flavor, only the sweet taste of maple. The biggest shock actually came the next day. Upon waking, my entire mouth tasted like maple syrup. It was cool, but a little weird.
Although I do want to try out those candy cap cookies, I think these mushrooms would be interesting to add to a mild cheese, like a gouda. But that’ll have to wait till later in the spring when I can get my hands on a good supply of raw milk. Alternatively, it might be fun to plan a dinner around a single ester, like sotolon. Curry with maple naan bread paired with a oloroso sherry chaser?