Months ago at a dinner party I promised a morel mushroom picker I’d invent a morel cake for him. I’ve finally made good on my promise.
There were so many ways to go: Adapt a medieval Italian red wine, chocolate and prune cake? What about a Mediterranean-style blood orange cake, or a dense, rich fudgy chocolate pie? I have not ruled out any of these notions. But you have to start somewhere.
So I started with flavours suggested by a homemade morel-whisky bitters a friend gave me a couple of years ago. He didn’t tell me exactly what was in the bitters (trade secret), but there’s a suggestion of warm spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon that seems to come from the mushrooms themselves. The morels at the bottom of the jar have become both sweet and pungent, like a new and bewitching candy you might be given in Rivendell, or Narnia.
Ah. The morels should be candied.
The cinnamon triggered memory of a dish we used to make at the Chocolate Claim in Whitehorse: mushrooms sautéed with thyme and cinnamon. Reaching even further back, I recalled a torte from the Joy of Cooking, when I was just learning that European cakes, so different from North American, could be so very good. This one combined chocolate, spices and walnuts.
I had my cake.
The candied morels take the place of the walnuts. The candying turns them into a sweet, musky, slightly chewy sort of dried fruit. You know how dried mangos can taste both sweet and animal? Like that.
Birch syrup is key to the operation, but if you can’t find it, try making strong, simple syrup with two parts dark brown sugar and one part water, and add a bit of lemon juice.
To those who Valentine, I put forward this dessert. It has all the right components: expensive ingredients (morels, birch syrup), complex flavours, and a hint of aphrodisiacal properties (chocolate, morels, spices).
To those who cry, Fie on Valentine’s Day and all those in its false Hallmarkian thrall! I put forward this dessert. You can feed 12 friends with it, at your party that celebrates friendship and all that is real and good and true and not false at all.
Candied Morel Mushroom Torte With Sabayon Ice Cream and Birch Syrup Sauce
1 oz. (28 gr) dried morel mushrooms; about 1 cup (250 mL)
½ cup (125 mL) birch syrup
2 Tbsp (30 mL) salted butter
Soak morels in water to cover until softened; about 20 minutes. Squeeze mushrooms over the bowl to catch the liquid (you’ll use it later) then dry them thoroughly in a tea towel or paper towel. Chop into pieces about the size of a craisin.
Bring birch syrup and butter to the boil over medium heat.
Add mushroom pieces, bring to the boil again and remove from heat.
Remove mushroom pieces with a slotted spoon and spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle enough birch syrup mixture over the mushrooms so that they’re coated but not swimming. Reserve the remaining syrup.
Roast mushroom pieces in a preheated 400F (200C) oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until they are slightly chewy, about the texture of a soft raisin. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Set aside.
Makes about 1 cup (250 mL) candied morels.
Candied Morel Mushroom Torte
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking’s Chocolate Walnut Torte)
6 egg yolks
7/8 cup (200 mL) sugar
½ cup (125 mL) finely crushed cracker crumbs
2 oz. (56 gr) unsweetened chocolate, grated
2 Tbsp (30 mL) sifted cocoa powder
1 cup (250 mL) candied morels (reserve a few morels for garnish)
2 ½ Tbsp (37.5 mL) spirits—whisky, rum or brandy
¼ tsp (2.5 mL) each cinnamon, thyme and freshly grated nutmeg
6 egg whites
Preheat oven to 325F (160 C).
Beat egg yolks until light and creamy. Gradually add sugar and beat until well combined.
Stir in remaining ingredients except egg whites.
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold lightly into the batter.
Bake in an ungreased, removable-rim pan for about 1 hour. If top browns too soon, lay a piece of parchment lightly over top.
Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife between torte and pan before removing rim.
Morel-Sabayon Ice Cream
[Adapted from Joy of Cooking’s Wine Custard]
You don’t taste the morels as morels in this dish, but they add a flavour you can’t quite put your finger on, the merest suggestion of umami. Texturally, the ice cream is halfway between ice cream and sherbet.
1 cup (250 mL) morel soaking liquid (see above)
2 cups (480 mL) dry white wine such as pinot grigio or pinot blanc
½ cup (125 mL) sugar
Strain morel soaking liquid through a fine strainer to remove grit. Over high heat, reduce to ½ cup (125 mL).
Pour wine and soaking liquid into the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.
Add eggs and sugar and beat vigorously. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture is thick enough to coat the spoon in a thin film.
Cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator for several hours.
If you have an ice cream maker, use it according to manufacturer’s instructions then freeze ice cream for a couple more hours to fully harden. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour custard into a shallow bowl, place in freezer and remove and beat vigorously every half hour to break up ice crystals and incorporate air. Do this five times, then leave in freezer for two to three hours to fully harden.
Remove from freezer 10 minutes before serving.
Makes about 3 cups (730 mL).
Birch Syrup Sauce
Simply use the remainder of the birch sryup and butter mixture you used for candying the morels. if you have less than ¼ cup (60 mL) remaining after drizzling over the morels, add a couple of tablespoons (30 mL) syrup and heat to boiling once more. Allow to cool slightly before serving.
To serve, arrange a slice of torte and small scoops of ice cream on a plate and drizzle syrup over everything, garnishing with reserved candied morels.