It’s chanterelle season in the Pacific Northwest and the other weekend Sis and I drove to our favorite spot outside Portland hoping to rake in a huge haul of mushrooms. Instead, we marveled over the fact that the forest floor was more sparsely populated with the mushrooms than we had ever encountered.
Were we too early? Too late? Was the Portland summer too hot to create the right environment for mushrooms to be peeking through the dense forest floor this early in the season? It was perplexing and disappointing. There’s almost nothing worse than going mushroom hunting and only getting a few mushrooms. The only thing that’s worse is getting none at all (which happened the next time we went mushroom hunting!)
Typically we have the whole forest to ourselves but this time we ran into a father toting a young daughter. Immediately he asked if we were finding anything and we both admitted to each other that we have had better luck in other years. He provided me with the tip to look for a Maple Vine tree, which is a legitimate tip, Sis learned a few days later, and he showed me what a Maple Vine tree is and how to identify one by its leaves. Something like the point on the leaves spell “maplevine.”
By the time we ran into the father-daughter duo, we were almost done traversing the forest. Sis suggested that on the way back to the car, we hug the forest at the edge of the road as she had had good luck in the past. Almost immediately, we found a small clustering of chanterelles and began to a bit feel better about our quest. After that small clustering, Sis began to head back while I poked around an area that most people probably would have passed right by — several felled trees lying perfectly parallel to each other pointing toward the road. And there, between the first and second felled tree, I spotted a large, perfectly untouched chanterelle mushroom. And another one. And another one. I kept poking around the logs and digging more and more chanterelles out of the ground piling them into my brown paper bag. I ended up finding more chanterelles that morning than I ever had.
While I was poking around the felled trees trying to make sure no chanterelle mushroom was left behind, I could hear Sis yelling that she’d made it to the car. After I was confident I had dug out all the chanterelles in the immediate area, I began plucking my way through the forest to the road where I hiked back to the car all the while with my little buddy Gus snuggled into his backpack slung over my back. In case you’re wondering, that’s 15 extra pounds I carry on my back during a few hours of mushroom hunting!
You may or may not not believe this, but there are not a ton of Chanterelle Mac and Cheese recipes floating around the internet. And of the few that exist, none of them are all that appealing looking. The recipe I created is gently adapted from the recipe by nearly the same name at Traveling Fork which was the clear winner by picture alone and because there was nearly no other competition. I opted not to add the crusty topping despite the fact that I bought bread specifically for it.
I lazily made Sis make this recipe the first time we tried it. I shouted the ingredients and the steps to her from the couch (in my defense, I was working) while she chopped mushrooms and grated cheese. While we really liked the recipe, both of us commented that it didn’t seem like there were that many mushrooms in the dish which … is the whole point of making Chanterelle mac and cheese. We also felt like we could barely taste any of (what should have been) luscious roasted garlic. And despite the fact that I paid almost $3 to get some fun shape of pasta a Trader Joe’s and the fact that Sis cooked the noodles to al dente, they still began to fall apart as she was mixing the final product together. For those reasons, and because I still had a pretty substantial amount of chanterelles left to use, I felt compelled to recreate the dish with some minor tweaks.
A lot of food bloggers perfect their recipes before publishing them. I will do this if necessary but a lot of times I hit it out of the ballpark on the first try and don’t feel like it’s necessary to continue fine-tuning a recipe. For this recipe, my initial tweaks were sufficient to produce what I would consider to be a five-star recipe, and they were relatively simple.
First of all, I changed the pasta shape from the one we had chosen for the first try. My favorite shape of pasta for mac and cheese is conchiglie (Montebello brand – other brands may call regular shell pasta conchiglie) and I had some on hand so I went with it. They are sort of a cross between a shell and elbow and they trap a lot of sauce in their pockets. Next, I upped the garlic quotient. Since I couldn’t taste it the first time, I decided to double the garlic amount. I added more mushrooms (just under 20 ounces up from from the first rendition). Just an additional almost 4 ounces seemed to increase the mushroom quotient quite substantially. I adjusted the cheese type ratio slightly by going for a bit more cheddar than gruyere and futzed around with the roux proportions. But the best tweak, in my opinion, was using pasta water to get the sauce to come together. I almost always use pasta water to finish off creamy sauces. It’s like a little miracle ingredient that can thin out a too-thick sauce and/or make a lumpy sauce perfectly creamy.
Lastly, I decided to undercook the noodles slightly so I could finish cooking the entire dish in the oven. This is a risky move. Oftentimes the noodles will get too cooked or the dish will dry out, but I’ve found that if you start out with plenty of sauce and it’s not too thick, the pasta should absorb some of the sauce but still leave enough of the creamy, cheesy goodness when you dig in with your serving spoon.
- 2 heads of garlic
- olive oil
- 1 lb pasta
- 1 to 1 ½ lbs chanterelle mushrooms, ends trimmed and cut into small pieces
- 2 + 4 T. butter, divided
- ½ tsp. salt
- 4 T. all-purpose flour
- 2 c. whole milk or cream
- 1 to 2 c. reserved pasta water
- 8 oz cheddar cheese, grated
- 6 oz gruyere cheese, grated
- 2 oz parmesan cheese, grated
- salt, to taste
optional crusty topping.
- 8 oz sourdough bread, ripped into small pieces
- 2 T. parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 T. olive oil
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut ¼ inch off the top of the garlic heads so the cloves are showing. Drizzle garlic with olive oil. Wrap garlic in tin foil and bake for 60 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool
- In an extra-large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Add the chanterelles and salt and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are soft and have released their juices.
- Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and add a healthy amount of salt. Bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until two minutes less than al dente (according to package directions). Drain, reserving pasta water, and rinse in cool water so the noodles stop cooking. Set aside.
- In a 3-quart dutch oven, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Once butter is melted, slowly whisk in the flour until incorporated. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, whisking constantly, until golden brown. Slowly pour in milk and whisk until well combined.
- Once milk is warm, add grated cheeses. Stir until cheese is melted. The mixture will probably get very thick. At this point, add 1 to 2 cups of reserved pasta water, which will significantly think out the sauce. Remove from heat.
- Squeeze the garlic out of its husk into the cheese sauce and whisk until well combined. Add the pasta and mushrooms to the cheese sauce and stir. Taste the sauce to see if you need to add any additional salt.
- If making the breadcrumb topping, place the bread in the bowl a food processor fitted with s-blade. Pulse until bread resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the 2 tablespoons grated parmesan, olive oil, salt, garlic, and thyme. Pulse a few more times to combine and drop evenly over the top of the mac and cheese. Alternatively, you can just top with some additional grated cheese, which I favor.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbling around the sides. If using the breadcrumb topping, broil the topping the last few minutes to brown, if necessary.