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January 18, 2008

Maple or Mushroom?

©2006 Ron Wolf
Waaaaaay back last summer our little crew held its tenth Iron Chef competition with an ingredient that had been on just about everybody's wish list since the inaugural competition. We have a few hardcore dessert lovers, however, so early on I think there was a little resistance to theme ingredients that people couldn't imagine in a sweet context. But seven years into it, I think folks have learned to trust the chefs a bit, and as such they entrusted us with mushrooms for the most recent battle.

Admittedly, as sweet applications of savory ingredients go, this was a tricky one. But a couple of years before, I'd read about a unique little breed of mushroom that I put in my back pocket to save as my secret weapon should an Iron Chef Mushroom be announced. Enter the candy cap.

Candy cap mushrooms are puzzling little fellows. When fresh, as pictured here (in a lovely photo graciously provided by Ron Wolf... thanks, Ron!), they don't taste like much at all. But as they dry, they take on an intense maple aroma and flavor, making them absolutely perfect for desserts. They're a little tricky to find, so I ordered mine from Millard Family Mushrooms, a tiny operation run by friendly folks who harvest and sell wild mushrooms out of Oregon. A quarter ounce bag sells for $5 plus shipping, but mine were still quite fragrant after six months so it's worth stocking up. I figured they'd make a damn fine cheesecake (though it turns out I'm far from the first to think so), and I used some goat cheese to bridge the gap between sweet and savory. Then we worked some chanterelles into a sauce for their overtones of apricot, and threw in a little crispy candied porcini for fun. The result? The highest scoring dish in Iron Chef Chicago history. But I think that's only because the judges gave the previous course, the challenger's dessert, a huge score and left themselves with no choice other than to give me an obscene score.

In any case, I was thrilled with it. It turned out really well. If you didn't tell people, they'd just assume you flavored it with maple syrup. But though the resemblance is uncanny, it isn't quite the same heavy, cloying sweetness as maple. Rather, it's a little spicy and earthy, which I actually prefer. The sauce is a modification of a Charlie Trotter sauce I've always liked, and though he pairs it with chocolate and ginger, I think it works great in this context. If the chanterelles in the sauce are pushing the whole mushroom dessert frontier a little too much for you, you can skip the fresh chanterelles and chanterelle reduction. We wanted to push the mushroom for our purposes, but it's still fantastic without the chanterelles -- a mushroom dessert disguised as a normal dessert. Nobody will guess what's in the cheesecake.

Amanda Magnano

2 C. graham cracker crumbs
6 Tbsp. melted butter
½ oz. dried candy cap mushrooms
24 oz. cream cheese
8 oz. chèvre or similar soft goat cheese
¾ C. sugar
4 eggs
1 fresh porcini mushroom
¼ C. light corn syrup
2 oz. dried chanterelle mushrooms
¼ C. butter
1 C. sugar
¼ C. orange juice
¼ C. heavy cream
½ C. chopped fresh chanterelle mushrooms
1 C. chopped pears

Candy Cap Cheesecake with Chanterelle Caramel Sauce and Candied Porcini Bark

Start off by preheating the oven to 350° and setting the cream cheese and goat cheese out so they come to room temperature. Butter up a 9" spring form pan, then mix the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter, and press them into the bottom of the pan. Cook the crust in the oven for ten minutes, until the crust is dark golden. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool while you work on the cheesecake.

Toss the dried candy caps in a spice grinder and grind them into a powder. Alternatively, you can use a mortar and pestle, but you want to make sure you end up with a very fine powder. Using beaters or a stand mixer (or a wooden spoon, if you're masochistic), beat together the cream cheese and goat cheese until smooth. Then, add the candy cap powder and sugar, and beat in the eggs one at a time at low speed, just until evenly incorporated. You don't want to overbeat here, or you could end up with cracks in your cheesecake later.

Give the sides of the spring form pan one more shot of butter, then pour the cheesecake mix into the pan. Carefully wrap the bottom of the spring form pan with aluminum foil so that water won't get through. Then place the spring form pan in a roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with warm water about halfway up the sides of the spring form pan. Transfer the whole thing to the oven, still at 350°, and cook until the cheesecake is ready. It'll probably be about 50 minutes, but it can vary widely depending on your oven, the heat of the water, the shape of the roasting pan, etc. etc. You'll know it's finished when the outside is set, but the 2-3" in the center are just a little jiggly. Remove the pan from the oven, lift the spring form pan out the water, and set it on a wire rack to cool. Run a knife along the inside of the pan to separate it from the cake, then when the cheesecake has come to room temperature, transfer it to the fridge and let it chill for at least six hours, preferably overnight, to set.

While the cheesecake is cooling, you can prep the porcini bark. Slice the porcini mushroom into paper thin slices, as many as you plan on serving. Hope you have a sharp knife. Or a truffle shaver. (Doesn't everybody have a truffle shaver?) Lightly oil a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil, then lay out the mushroom slices and brush them, both sides, with the corn syrup. You probably won't use it all. Bake the mushroom for about five minutes, remove the pan from the oven, flip them, and bake for about another five minutes until they are a golden color. They'll crisp up as they cool. Store them in an airtight container until you're ready to use them.

To prepare the sauce, start with the dried chanterelle mushrooms. Combine them in a small dish with half a cup of very, very hot water, and let them steep for about half an hour. Remove the mushrooms, squeezing any liquid into the dish, and discard them. If there appears to be any grit in the liquid, strain it through a fine strainer or paper towel. Put the chanterelle liquid in a small pan, bring it to a simmer and reduce it down to two tablespoons. Combine this reduction with the orange juice (freshly squeezed, please) and keep it hot.

In a separate pan, heat the sugar over medium-low heat for about ten minutes, until it's golden brown and caramelized. At first, it'll look like nothing is happening. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat. When it goes, it'll go quickly and if the pan is too hot it'll burn. Stir the sugar to ensure it's evenly melted, then add the mushroom/orange mixture and stir again combined. Add the butter, the cream, the sautéed chanterelles and the chopped pears and continue cooking for about ten minutes, stirring frequently, until the pears and mushrooms have softened slightly and the sauce comes together. Don't be afraid to turn the heat down if it looks like it's cooking too fast. There's no rush and you don't want burnt caramel.

To serve, slice up the cheesecake, stick one or two pieces of the porcini bark in the top, drizzle with the hot caramel sauce and serve it up. Then be prepared for nobody to believe you when you tell them the only seasoning in the cake is mushrooms.


Exchange the porcini for a white king bolete, Boletus barrowsii, picked in the Arizona high country. Many who have had them say they are sweeter and even more delicious than the ordinary porcini. They are found growing with Ponderosa pine in the summer monsoon season.

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