The Story of the Morels
The Berkeley Farmers’ markets include a mushroom grower (Solano Mushrooms in Vacaville, #15 in my map) who sells both cultivated and wild varieties. In a fit of splurging recently, I went for the morels. Morels are small, hollow wild mushrooms with a wonderful flavor (some photos). They are pricey, so I like to use them in simple preparations that emphasize their distinctive nature. I cooked three dishes with my morels: a quick pasta dish, a potato-morel gratin, and a morel souffle (pictured above).
Pasta with Morels
The pasta dish required the least amount of work (unless you make your own pasta, which I recommend for the best eating experience). I sauteed some sliced morels in butter over medium heat, added a little garlic and fresh thyme, then some half and half (heavy cream would be great too). I reduced the heat under the morels to low, then put the pasta into boiling salted water. When the pasta was cooked, I pulled it right out of the pot and piled it onto the morel-cream mixture, and combined. Seasoned with salt, pepper and grated Parmesan, it was a simple, delicious way to have a somewhat tangled morel lesson.
The second way I used the morels was in a gratin with potatoes, based on a recipe in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables. I peeled and diced potatoes (Yukon Gold from the Ludwig Ave Farm in Santa Rosa, #8 in my map), then boiled them in salted water until almost tender. Meanwhile, I sauteed sliced morels in butter for a few minutes. Into a buttered shallow baking dish, I layered the potatoes and morels, topped it with some salt and pepper, and then poured in enough half and half to cover the vegetables. I baked it in a 375 F oven until the liquid was bubbling and the top showing spots of golden brown. Although the ingredients were few and the preparation uncomplicated, this gratin had a delightful complexity of flavor and texture, with the springiness of the morels, the tenderness of the potato, and the morel-infused cream.
My most elegant use of the morels was in single-serving souffles. I used Julia Child’s master recipe for Cheese Souffle from The Way to Cook as a guide. Souffles are relatively straightforward to make, but there are many things that can go wrong. In this case, for example, I was unsure about whether the morels would stay suspended in the souffle foam, or whether they would all sink to the bottom of the baking cup, forming a crust of sorts (as happened with a asparagus souffle in May). In this particular souffle experience, I did not suffer from “loose morels” and most of the pieces stayed suspended in the egg foam, diffusing the deep flavor throughout the light yet rich souffle base.
Wild Mushroom Souffle
The baking dishes
- 2 tbsp finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 3/4 cup morels or other wild mushrooms finely chopped (about 5 mm on a side)
- 2 1/2 tbsp butter
- 3 tbsp flour
- 1 cup hot milk
- 1/2 tsp salt a few grinds of white pepper
- 4 egg yolks
- 5 egg whites
- 1/2 cup cheese I used Fiscallini bandage wrapped cheddar
- Get out small baking dishes with an combined capacity of 4 cups (I like to use 1/2 cup dishes)
- Butter the baking dishes, then coat the insides of the dishes with the cheese (spoon in a little bit, then roll the dish around to distribute the cheese)
- Place your upper oven rack on the lower-third level, and set the oven to 400 F.
Cook the morels
- Saute the morels in butter over medium heat for a few minutes, then set aside.
Make the souffle base
- Choose a heavy saucepan that is large enough to hold the base and beaten egg whites, and that will also provide enough room for the folding operation at the end.
- Melt the butter in the saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes.
- Remove from heat, wait a few seconds, then pour in the hot milk. Whisk to combine.
- Return the pan to medium heat, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon. Be sure to reach your spoon into the edges of the pan to prevent lumps.
- Cook until the sauce thickens, about three minutes. Remove from heat.
- One at a time, whisk the egg yolks into the white sauce.
- Fold in the cooked mushrooms.
- Finish the souffle batter
- The egg whites and combining everything
- Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
Add about 1/4 of the egg whites to the base, and thoroughly fold them in to lighten the mixture (see note below about technique). Scoop the remaining egg whites onto the base, and gently fold the mixture together with a large rubber spatula. Between folds of the spatula, sprinkle in the grated cheese (Julia Child claims that this increases the souffle's lightness).
- Scoop the mixture into the baking dishes, filling them all the way to the top for the most dramatic effect.
Bake the souffles
- Set the baking dishes into the oven, and reduce the heat to 375 F.
- The souffles bake for about 10-15 minutes, until they have puffed up and the parts of the top are a rich golden brown.
For a video demonstration of impeccable egg white technique by Jacques Pepin, check out the Lobster Souffle a l'Americaine, Part 2 episode of Julia Child's Cooking with Master Chefs series. The egg white whipping starts at about 17:18. With his remarkable technique, a copper bowl, and a balloon whisk, Chef Pepin is probably faster than my KitchenAid.
Adapted from Julia Child's master recipe for Cheese Souffle in The Way to Cook.