Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Maple-Flavored Mushrooms, And The Man Who Cooks Them

Though Todd Humphries has been cooking with candy cap mushrooms for years at his restaurants in Napa Valley, few people outside the area are familiar with these unique little funghi.  Candy caps (lactarius rubidus) are tiny bronze-colored mushrooms that grow wild in Mendocino, the Oakland Hills, and mushroom-friendly places north. 

Their claim to fame?  Candy caps smell and taste uncannily like maple syrup.

The (Mushroom) Man.
Photo by Ashley Teplin.
I sat down with Todd at his Napa restaurant Kitchen Door to learn more about these strange little beasts and their many delectable possibilities.  For those who don't know, Todd Humphries is the ultimate mushroom chef of Napa Valley, who not only cooks them in shockingly delicious ways, but also gets up pre-dawn to forage his own in the cold, damp wilds of northern California.

During his Martini House days, Todd used to offer seasonal all-mushroom tasting menus spotlighting beautiful and arcane varieties most people will never see again.  I was lucky enough to discover candy caps at such a dinner, just a few days before Martini House closed (check out my article on WineCountry.com for pictures and full report).  Fortunately for me and other candy cap lovers, Todd now runs his candy cap mushroom bread pudding on Kitchen Door's menu every day of the week... and he graciously agreed to share his recipe with you, my loyal blog readers.  You're welcome.

No one seems to know how or why the maple aroma and flavor is present in these mushrooms, but it's unmistakeable.  Fresh candy caps have a fainter maple scent than the dried versions -- which quickly dominate any airspace they're exposed to -- but can still be distinguished from similar-looking mushrooms by the milky fluid they exude when punctured (hence the Latin name "lactarius") and the rough cat's tongue texture of the cap. 

Fresh candy caps are very fragile and highly perishable, but also delicious to cook with if you have the opportunity, Todd says.  He recalls serving a rouget dish at Martini House with a curry reduction sauce and fresh candy caps sauteed in butter, where the mushrooms' spice and sweet aromatics complemented and amplified the sauce in a truly unique way.
The Kitchen Door candy cap bread pudding. They also
sell it to go, so you can ravish it in the privacy
of your own home.

Because of the perishability factor, though, most candy cap dishes in restaurants are made using dried mushrooms, which also have the strongest maple flavor and that slight hint of spice.  It takes 10-12 pounds of fresh mushrooms to yield one pound of dried, so dried candy caps tend to be pricy propositions.  Fortunately, they are potent little buggers and a little goes a long way.

Dried candy caps can be pulverized into a powder to use in pancakes, cookies, or spaetzle, but most commonly Todd uses them whole to infuse cream or milk for desserts (think panna cotta, anglaises... and bread pudding).  He recommends either a cold soak in the liquid overnight, or a slow, gentle warming of the liquid -- but boiling liquids, as in a reduction, seem to muddy the flavor somehow.  Another tip from the pro: don't try to rehydrate dried candy caps and use them whole like you would dried porcinis.  The texture just doesn't work. 

The maple flavor infuses warm liquid at an astonishing rate, as I discovered when playing at home with some dried mushrooms.  My 10-minute candy cap syrup proved a very interesting cocktail mixer for Calvados and fresh lemon juice, and Todd tells me he has seen other candy cap syrups on the market -- as well as candy cap-infused oil out of Oregon.  I'm thinking that would be amazing on crostini toasts with cheeses or charcuterie.

Curious to get your hands on some, for your own experiments?  Try Connie Green of Wine Forest Mushrooms, who supplies Kitchen Door and many other amazing restaurants on a wholesale basis, but also now operates a retail pantry store online.  

And please let me know about your delicious concoctions by commenting below.


  1. I had to count: you wrote the words "candy cap" fifteen times.
    I shall never be able to remove them from my mind.
    Great post!

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