Key Ingredient: huitlacoche 

Elissa Narow of Perennial Virant goes for the gray with corn smut

Huitlacoche-white chocolate cheesecake with popcorn, corn muffin crumble, and blackberry jam

Huitlacoche-white chocolate cheesecake with popcorn, corn muffin crumble, and blackberry jam

Julia Thiel

The Chef: Elissa Narow (Perennial Virant)
The Challenger: Jeffrey Sills (Sprout)
The Ingredient: Huitlacoche

Also known as corn smut, huitlacoche is a fungus that infects corn, causing large gray galls to grow on the cob instead of kernels. It's considered a delicacy in Mexico, where the Aztec name is thought to translate to "sleeping excrement" or "raven excrement." It's less prized in the U.S., however, despite the James Beard Foundation's attempt to dub it "Mexican truffle" back in 1989. But while that name hasn't exactly stuck, huitlacoche has become popular enough here that some farmers intentionally infect their corn in order to grow the fungus.

Nonetheless, Elissa Narow had trouble tracking it down. While she knew of a couple farmers who grow it, they were out. She'd resigned herself to using a canned version when one of the Perennial Virant cooks tracked down a farmer up in Wisconsin who had fresh huitlacoche and was willing to sell her several ears.

"It's very strange-looking," Narow said. "It looks like a giant corn kernel, like the fungus actually grew into the skin of the corn and just kind of expanded the kernel."


Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

She didn't think cooking with it would be that hard, especially since she'd just used mushrooms in a dessert for a mushroom-themed dinner at Vie. "I was like, oh, I just did that," she says. "But it was definitely more challenging than I thought." After trying huitlacoche both raw and cooked, Narow concluded that it tasted like dirt.

click to enlarge Huitlacoche - JULIA THIEL

The first thing she tried making was a chevre fritter, something that's on the menu at Perennial Virant—sans huitlacoche, of course. Narow cooked and pureed the fungus, then added it to the batter for the fritters. "It turned out looking like a meatball. It didn't really taste like anything," she said.

Huitlacoche-white chocolate cheesecake, Narow's second idea, was the one she ended up going with. As she had for the fritters, Narow cut the huitlacoche off the cob, sauteed it with butter, then put it in a high-speed blender and passed it through a chinois for a smooth puree. She mixed that with cream cheese, melted white chocolate, sugar, and eggs to make the cheesecake batter.

click to enlarge Perennial Virant's Elissa Narow

"One of the things to get over is the color, because it cooks black, so my dessert's gray. It kind of looks like concrete," Narow said. She served the cheesecake with blackberry sauce and jam, saying that the tart, dark flavors of the berries went well with the mushroomy flavors of the huitlacoche—plus she liked the color. A corn muffin—crumbled, mixed with sugar and butter, and baked again to make it crunchy and chewy—and popcorn finished the dish. Narow also sprinkled a little fresh thyme on top, noting that she likes the flavor with mushrooms.

While Narow said the dessert tasted good, she's definitely not going to put it on the menu. She probably wouldn't even order it herself. Another chef at the restaurant tasted it and commented, "I like that a lot. If only it weren't gray."

That's the problem, Narow concluded: "It's the gray. It's really off-putting."

Who's Next:

Ray Stanis of Nellcote, working with mochiko, a finely milled flour from sweet rice that's used to make rice noodles and mochi.

Huitlacoche-white chocolate cheesecake

5 oz cream cheese
5 oz white chocolate, melted
½ c sugar
pinch salt
2 eggs
2 oz huitlacoche puree

Garnish

Blackberry jam
Thyme
Popcorn
Corn muffin crumble

Huitlacoche puree

1½ c fresh huitlacoche
2 oz butter

Cut the huitlacoche away from the cob and coarsely chop. Saute with butter until soft (it will turn black). Place in blender, puree, then strain through a chinois.

Corn muffin crumble

One corn muffin (homemade or store bought)
2 T granulated sugar
1 T melted butter

Crumble one cup of the muffin into a bowl, mix with butter and sugar, then spread onto a baking sheet and bake five to eight minutes, or until crunchy and chewy.

Melt white chocolate over a water bath or in the microwave, being careful not to burn. Set aside and keep warm. Place cream cheese, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and cream with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add eggs until incorporated, then the white chocolate. Mix in the puree just until blended. Pour into molds. Bake in a water bath in a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes, until set but slightly jiggly. Let chill for three hours or overnight before unmolding. Serve with blackberry jam, corn muffin crumble, popcorn, and thyme.

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