On a Saturday afternoon visit to an ice cream parlour, I saw a flavour that looked absolutely disgusting: mushroom. Feeling unadventurous, I ordered chocolate instead. But my husband went for the mushroom, and it was delicious.
“It tastes like waffles,” the server told us. The ice cream was pale yellow, with a flavour more complex than vanilla and more mellow than butter pecan. I ended up stealing several bites from my husband.
The mushroom variety is the candy cap, renowned for its pungent maple syrup-like aroma when dried. Some people have compared the scent to butterscotch, fenugreek, or curry. One baker raved that it made her apartment smell like maple glazed donut bars and cinnamon.
Candy cap mushrooms have been used in cookies, puddings, pancakes, bread, and risotto, as well as chutneys to accompany pork or duck. You can find recipes for candy cap cupcakes and crème brûlée. After eating the dried mushrooms, you might even find that your sweat smells like maple.
In a 2012 study, scientists figured out which chemical gives the dried candy cap its distinctive smell. It’s called quabalactone III, and it’s also part of the flowers of a tree named Rosita de Cacao, or Quararibea funebris, in Mexico. The indigenous Zapotecs added the flowers to their chocolate drinks. Called “flor de cocoa,” the blooms have been used to treat coughs and “psychopathic fears”.
Fresh candy cap mushrooms don’t actually contain quabalactone III. But during drying, the study authors speculate, amino acids in the mushroom might react to form that chemical. Quabalactone III can then react with water to make sotolon, a sweet-smelling compound used in artificial maple syrup.
According to a Humboldt State University article, finding the chemical behind the candy cap odor was a long journey. HSU researcher William Wood, the lead author on the study, started thinking about the question when graduate student Darvin DeShazer brought it up in 1985. Wood and DeShazer worked on the problem, followed by four more students, but without success. The project stalled until Wood used a new technique to capture the gases released from the dried mushrooms.
After the paper was published, DeShazer baked a candy cap mushroom cake. I’m tempted to make one too.
Candy cap mushroom recipes
First image: tonx | Flickr
Second image: J. Pollack Photography
Third image: Kylie Antolini | The Baking Bird