Sunday, August 14, 2011

Huitlacoche: The Mexican Truffle

There is nothing like an earthy fungus to elevate a dish from ordinary to heavenly. Mushrooms – wild, cultivated, rare, expensive, are used in most international cuisines for their texture and depth of flavour. One of the most unusual of the mushroom family is corn smut, or Huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ripening ears of corn, overtaking the natural growth; if left to mature, the result is misshapen and delicious spore-laden kernels.

Huitlacoche (pronounced wit-la-kō-chay), a wonderful error of nature, is basically corn smut. The term “Mexican Truffle” is attributed to a Huitlacoche-themed dinner presented at James Beard House in New York, celebrating Mexico’s nouvelle cuisine – old and new, the fusion of ancient Aztec and alto cuisines. Eradicated from crops in most of the world by fungicides, Huitlacoche is generally by necessity, organic. Its rarity and rise on the international culinary scene has meant premium prices for fresh Huitlacoche and experimental infections of otherwise healthy crops in selected areas of the United States.

Fresh, the truffle niblets are firm and smooth, whitish-silver in appearance, with some ashy discolorations. When they are cooked, the Huitlacoche turn black, deeply inky black. Canned Huitlacoche is always black, and is a good substitute when fresh is not available.

I first ate Huitlacoche at Chef Luis Fitch’s Los Xitomates Alta Cocina Mexicana in Puerto Vallarta – he stuffed mushrooms with the fragrant smut, a double fungus whammy, and poured a luxurious Huitlacoche sauce over a perfectly grilled filet of beef. Not far down the street from this 5 star restaurant, I discovered a taco stand where Huitlacoche was fried with onion and garlic, scattered on an oblong huarache, laced with stringy cheese and chiles. A tenth of the price, but 5 star flavour! Those were the days, my friend.

Here in Huatulco, Huitlacoche is rare on menus, even though the wonderful corn fields of Oaxaca are not so far away. One local restaurant, Los Gallos on Carrizal, makes delicious Huitlacoche sopes.

Looking for ideas to satisfy my Huitlacoche cravings, I came across these very useful articles – one from food writer Karen Harsh Gruber,, who recommends making a Huitlacoche “butter” to top grilled meat and poultry. The other one is from respected ex pat blogger Rollybrook – he explores the countryside around Lerdo in central Mexico for a field infected with Huitlacoche, then photo-chronicles the preparation of a classic Huitlacoche dish – tlacolla. You can find him at

Enough reading about Huitlacoche, missing Huitlacoche, dreaming about mouthwatering Huitlacoche, it was time to put my fungus cooking skills to test. No fresh fungus was available in the last few weeks, so I turned to canned, an expensive endeavour – but a little bit of smut goes a long way. I love empanadas, so I came up with this recipe to showcase Huitlacoche in a tender pastry half moon.

If there is such a thing as a classic pairing of flavours for Huitlacoche, I deemed mushrooms, tender corn sliced off the raw cob, toasted pine nuts and goat cheese to be the filling vehicle for my empanadas.

Huitlacoche Empanadas

Pastry (from Emeril Lagasse)

(Make the dough early – it is important that it rests, refrigerated for a minimum of 4 hours, preferably longer)

• 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature

• 6 tablespoons butter, room temperature

• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer using the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on high speed until very smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl, as necessary. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the flour, little by little, and the salt, and process until just combined. Turn the dough out onto a slightly floured surface and knead lightly. Form the dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.

Filling ( from Kathy Taylor’s kitchen)

• 2 tablespoons cooking oil

• ½ white onion, small dice

• 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

• 6 mushrooms, chopped

• Corn from 2 fresh ears

• 2/3 cup tinned Huitlacoche

• ¼ cup chopped parsley

• 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

• ½ cup goat cheese, pinched into bits

• Pepper and salt to taste

To a heavy skillet on medium heat, add oil and onions. When the onions begin to soften, add the garlic and mushrooms. Cook until any moisture from the mushrooms evaporates. Add the corn and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Add Huitlacoche and parsley, and remove from the heat.

When the mixture cools, add the pine nuts and finally the goat cheese, breaking it up coarsely, but not smoothing it into the filling. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Preheat oven to 450.

On a generously floured surface, roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Using a 4” cutter, cut as many circles as possible – place a rounded tablespoon of filling slightly off center in each circle, fold the circle in half and crimp the edges together – you can moisten the edges of the pastry with a bit of beaten egg if you are having problems with them sticking. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush the top of each empanada with beaten egg and bake uncovered until golden, about 12 to 15 minutes.

These empanadas really showcase the exotic earthiness of the Huitlacoche, with the pine nuts giving them a bit of texture. I had some filling left over and used it the next day for a very sexy omelette, with a side of sliced tomatoes and onions. Muy rico!

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