Not Mushroom for Buttercream!

As I’m sat here typing, I’m surrounded by the detritus of a truly memorable evening with my nearest and dearest friends and family. There’s a little toy dog to the right of my laptop that was put there by Grandma on my little girl’s request, a half eaten babka and kransekake in front of me, and a tablecloth strewed with crumbs. It is the most perfect beginning to a new year that I could have hoped for.


2015 was a year that challenged me on every front and left me constantly running just to stay still. After a whole lifetime of thinking my life was heading towards an academic career, 2 years after getting my PhD it finally became apparent that as much as I love doing research and teaching at university, foraging is where my heart lies. Turning my back on the certainty of a contract and a salaried position for something that is completely unpredictable and in many ways, unknown, has been the most terrifying decision of my life. While I have been teaching foraging skills to people since 2007, that was always as a sideline and not my full-time job. Last year, I baked more cakes, made more preserves (we used over 750kg of sugar over the year!!!!!) and bought more equipment than ever before. But I also had more fun than I believed possible. Yes, sacrifices have had to be made and it left me with very little time for my friends and family (something that will definitely change this year!), but it’s been an exhilarating ride!


Every new year, people make resolutions. I can’t remember ever having done so, but I think it may be time to start. So here are mine for 2016:

1. Play more. When foraging is your job, you can sometimes get so bogged down in the day to day things that you do to help you make money that you forget the reason why you forage for a living. Because it’s fun! So this year, I will play more with my food.

2. Blog more. I really enjoy writing and I love this blog. This year, I shall do my best to write a new post once a week.

3. Make more videos. If you haven’t come across it already, I have a YouTube Channel. I set it up last year but the posts take forever to do because of the video editing. But they’re fun! So this year, I will try to do one at least once a month.

4. Do more teaching with other people. I have met some truly amazing foragers over the years and I think it’s time you met them too! The first of my collaborative workshops are Natural Skincare Making with Vivienne Campbell on the 26th of January . She is a professional herbalist who runs foraging, natural skincare making and medicine workshops over in Ireland and runs an amazing e-learning course that I have done myself. I’ll be reviewing that in another week or so and sharing a discount code for you to get 10% off it so keep your eyes on the blog!

5. Spend more time with my baby. Babies grow so so fast and she is changing every day. I don’t want to miss any of it! So if I fail on any of my other resolutions, know that it’s because I’m focusing on this one!

Right…enough about me. Time to talk mushrooms!


When you think of a mushroom dish, what comes to mind? Is it a cep lasagne or a creamy pasta sauce? Maybe mushrooms on toast with some scrambled eggs or made into a soup? How about cake? No? Not cake? Well…this post is all about my new favourite dessert mushroom, the velvet shank!


I’ve blogged about velvet shanks before, mainly because they are out when very little else is in the mushroom world. I’ve picked them when they’ve been buried in snow before now and they have the miraculous ability to freeze, defrost and keep growing! They are the wild sisters of the domesticated enoki mushrooms you can buy in the supermarket and they are divine. If you find them on your amblings, try and nibble on one raw. They are one of an exciting but exclusive group of fungi that you can do this with and they taste like caramel. I kid you not.


So when I nibbled some earlier this week, I decided to do something crazy. I decided to make them the star of the most complex and unique cake I have ever made: an Opera Cake. They do something truly remarkable in this cake. Paired with the deep blackness of Chaga mushroom decoction, they sing a song of butterscotch and coffee that tantalises the taste buds and left me dancing with joy around my kitchen in a truly embarrassing fashion.


For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the Great British Bake Off, an Opera cake is a cake that comprises of 5 separate components that when put together, make you wish you could sing. Layers of Joconde sponge are drenched in syrup and sandwiched together with alternating layers of French buttercream and chocolate buttercream and covered in chocolate ganache. It is quite simply…divine! It is a HUGE amount of work but is 100% worth it. And if you don’t have the time to make the whole cake, you can use the velvet shank buttercream to ice vanilla or even chocolate flavoured cupcakes or whole cakes for truly scrumptious treats that are real conversation starters!


For today’s party, I made the things in the picture above. The gorgeous tall thing is a kransekake (think chewy almond sweets and you won’t be far off!) iced in purple elderberry and peach rosehip royal icing (it took 3 hours to do the icing and assembly alone!!), some raised rooster and salted mushroom pies (recipe will be uploaded in the next couple of weeks), the opera cakes and a chocolate babka. All gluten free of course! In the meantime, here’s the recipe for the Opera Cake. Let me know what you think in the comments below! And if you’d like to order one of my gluten free and foraged cakes, either to collect or by post, drop me an email at


Chaga & Velvet Shank Opera Cake


Chaga Dedoction:

4tbsp Chaga mushroom powder
4 litres of water

Chaga Syrup:

100ml of concentrated chaga decoction
50g of sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla glycerite (recipe is in my previous blog post)

Joconde sponge

4 free-range egg whites
17g granulated sugar
150g ground almonds
150g icing sugar, sifted
4 free-range eggs
25g plain flour (I used my own gluten free flour blend that also contains xanthan gum, but you can substitute something like Dove’s Gluten Free flour blend with a pinch of xanthan gum)
40g cocoa powder, sifted
85g butter, melted

Velvet Shank French buttercream

3 free-range egg yolks, room temperature
170g caster sugar
50ml water
250g butter, cubed and softened
1tsp vanilla glycerite
150g minced caps from young velvet shank mushrooms
125g white chocolate, melted300g/10½oz raspberries

Chaga chocolate buttercream

100g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar
100g plain chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), melted
50ml chaga decoction

Chocolate ganache

200g plain chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)
100g golden syrup
100ml double cream


Chaga Decoction:

Put your chaga powder and water in a pot. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down to the lowest it will go and simmer very very gently until it’s reduced to about 250ml and turned black. Cover the pot and leave it overnight to steep further.

Chaga Syrup:

Mix your decoction with the sugar and vanilla in a small pot and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for 1 minute and leave to cool.

Joconde Sponge:

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Grease and line two 37cm x 26.5cm baking trays. Whisk the egg white in a clean bowl until soft peaks form when the whisk is removed. Slowly whisk in the sugar and continue to whisk until stiff peaks form. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside.

Beat the almonds, icing sugar and eggs together in a separate bowl for 3-5 minutes, or until the it has doubled in volume. Sieve your flour and cocoa powder over the bowl and gently fold them in to your egg and almond mixture.

Gently fold in half of your whisked egg whites into the mixture, followed by the other half.

Place 2tbsp of this mixture into the bowl with your melted butter and mix thoroughly until well combined. Make sure your butter was at the same temperature as your eggs or your mixture may curdle!

Tip your butter mixture into the cake mixture and fold together until just combined.

Divide your mixture evenly between your two cake tins. The cake batter should weigh approximately 800g, so weigh it out onto your tins. Given the amount of work that goes into this cake, precision is everything. You don’t want to end up with some of your cake layers being thicker than others so don’t skip the weighing!

Spread your batter as smooth as possible, paying special attention to your corners. An off-set spatula is a godsend for this! In fact, I highly recommend you buy one before making it as it makes all the spreading so so much easier than virtually any other tool you could use including a regular straight icing spatula.

Bake your cakes for 5-7 minutes, or until pale golden-brown and cooked through. If your oven is a bit unpredictable and you don’t think it will be able to cook both layers simultaneously and have them turn out the same, just do them one at a time in the centre of your oven. They can survive on your counter for the amount of time it takes to bake. My top tip is to spread the batter smooth in the first tin, pop it in the oven and get to smoothing the second tin of batter. By the time you’ve finished, it’ll be time for it to go in the oven too.

Remove the cakes from the oven, cover with a large piece of greaseproof paper and carefully turn out the cakes onto wire cooling racks. Gently peel off the greaseproof paper from the (now) top of the cakes and set aside to cool completely.

Velvet shank French  Buttercream:

There is a bit of a caveat for this step. If you own a very large stand mixer like I do, you cannot make a single quantity of this buttercream as the beaters don’t cope with very small volumes. So double it. The other half of the buttercream keeps exceptionally well (without the mushrooms!) in the fridge for up to a week or freezer for a month. Just bring it back to room temperature and beat it to lighten it up before using.

Whisk the egg yolks until pale, thick and foamy. This will take at least 5 minutes but the great thing is, you cannot overwhip them. So pop them in your stand mixer and forget about them while you get busy with making the syrup.

Heat the sugar and water in a saucepan until it reaches 120C/250F (use a sugar thermometer to check this – very important!). When it comes to the boil, put the lid on your pot for a few seconds to wash any sugar crystals off the sides of the pot. Do not stir the mixture or it will crystallise and go funny in your icing.

While whisking the egg yolks, slowly pour the syrup down into it, trying to avoid the beaters or you will lose most of the syrup to the sides of the bowl. Once you’ve poured it all in, switch the beaters off and use a spatula to get as much of the sugar syrup that’s on the sides of the bowl off and into the eggs. Continue to whisk for a further five minutes, or until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. Start adding your butter into the mixture, one piece at a time, then add the vanilla essence and melted chocolate. Gently fold your velvet shank caps into the buttercream then set aside.


Chocolate buttercream:Beat the butter and icing sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat in the melted chocolate and chaga decoction. Set aside.


Chocolate ganache:

Break the chocolate into small pieces and place into a bowl. Heat the golden syrup and double cream in a saucepan until just boiling. Pour the cream mixture onto the chocolate and set aside for two minutes before whisking until smooth. Whisk in enough hot water to loosen the ganache into a pouring consistency.


Step 1: Cut each one of your cakes into 2 to make 4 pieces. Trim each of your cakes down so they have uniformly straight sides and are identical. You can trim the cakes afterwards but I found this method to be easier as otherwise your knife can drag the layers of the cake into each other and spoil the finish.

Step 2: Place one cake square onto a serving plate and generously brush with chaga syrup.

Step 3: Spread over half of the velvet shank buttercream.

Step 4: Top with another cake square and generously brush with more chaga syrup.

Step 5: Spread over half of the chaga buttercream.

Step 6: Place another cake square on top and generously brush with the chaga syrup. Spread over the remaining velvet shank buttercream.


Step 7: Top with the final cake square and generously brush with the chaga syrup. Spread with the remaining chocolate chaga buttercream.

Step 8: Using your teeny little spatula scrape away the excess icing from the edges of the cake to make them all perfectly smooth and pretty looking.


Step 9: Spread the chocolate ganache over the top of the cake, right to the edges.

Chill the cake in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slice it or it will not slice as easily. Serve it in pieces about 1.5inch squared. It is very very rich so it’s easier for people to have two slices than risk the horrific waste of cake that would result if someone can’t finish their cake.


Bask in the adulation of your friends and family as you serve them a cake worthy of an opera!

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Not so Vanilla extract

Mina : December 8, 2015 9:29 am : My Adventures in Wild FoodWild Herbalism

Vanilla: vəˈnɪlə/

noun: vanilla

1.A substance obtained from vanilla pods or produced artificially and used to flavour foods or to impart a fragrant scent to cosmetic preparations.

“vanilla ice cream”

That’s the standard definition anyway. But have a look at urban dictionary and you will come across a whole new world of meaning for vanilla.

1. With the most popular (and SFW) one being:

Unexciting, normal, conventional, boring.

“Vanilla, a bit like this definition.”

Now, anyone who has ever lifted the lid from a whole jar of vanilla pods and had a good sniff will know that vanilla is anything but boring! It’s heady, aromatic, sensuous, delicious…exciting! The problem is that what people associate with vanilla is in fact made largely synthetically and shoved into cheap, crappy ice cream all over the world! I say…no more!

I haven’t bought a single bottle of shitty vanilla extract in nearly a decade. I can’t use alcohol based vanilla extract, I would go through jars of paste waaaay too quickly to justify the expense, and in any case, I’d much rather make my own! Cue vegetable glycerin.


Glycerin is a very useful solvent in herbal medicine. It is the sweet principle of oils, was discovered in 1789 and came into use by medicine makers around 1846. It is obtained by the hydrolysis of vegetable fats or fixed oils so it’s gluten free and vegan too! Liquid glycerine has the consistency of a thick syrup and is a clear, colorless, and odorless liquid. It also happens to be incredibly sweet, yet doesn’t act on your blood sugar levels, making it a perfect sweetener for diabetics and is used for just that reason in diabetic baked goods. It is also used as an ingredient in toothpaste, shampoos, soaps, herbal remedies, and other household items. When it’s used to make medicine, the resulting liquid is called a glycerite. The glycerite I make the most is elderberry, followed by red poppy petal and…vanilla!

I know you can’t forage vanilla pods, so you’ll probably be wondering why I’m dedicating a whole post in a foraging blog to something you buy from a supermarket, and the answer is that I use it in nearly all my sweet wild food baking and I really wanted to share it with you! We will also be using this to make the most delicious natural lip balms in the universe at my Natural Skincare & Herbal Beauty workshop with Vivienna Campbell in January (if you’d like to join us, you can book through the Workshops page).

Not so Vanilla Extract


95 g vanilla pods
1 litre liquid glycerine


Very fine meshed tea strainer/sieve

This recipe uses a LOT of vanilla pods. I make no apologies for that! I actually started off with 130 full pods and a further 40 or so scraped out pods where I’d used the seeds in ice creams, etc. It weighed in at 140g and used 1.5l of glycerine. I’ve scaled this recipe down a bit but I think you will struggle to use this method with really small quantities of glycerine in a full size blender! But feel free to experiment as your budget allows.

Do not go and buy your vanilla pods from the supermarket or you will spend a ridiculously large amount of money on this. eBay is your friend and that is where I tend to buy them from when I run out of my Tanzanian cooperative ones I bring from back home.

Chop your pods up into 1 inch pieces and put them in a spice mill in batches.


Grind them down into as fine a powder as you can. Some pieces of skin will always remain but that’s not a problem.


Scrape the seeds out of your spice mill and into your blender. Add about 50ml of glycerine to your mill and blend to try and get as much of that vanilla goodness out as possible. Add this and a further 300ml of glycerine to your blender.


Blend for 2-3 minutes before straining through your sieve. When you first start blending, it looks like photo above. Keep going until it looks like the photo below.


The sieve I use for this is so fine that it’s practically muslin so try and find the finest one you can! Put the bits that remain in your sieve back into your blender and add 300ml of glycerine and repeat the process, combining this batch of glycerite with your first. For the third and final blend, add the remaining 250ml. With each progressive blend, your glycerite will come out a lighter brown. This is good! It shows that you’ve got most of the seeds out. Guess which blob in the photo below is the first extract I made!


Store your vanilla glycerite in a glass jar in a dark place. It’s ready to use immediately but the longer it keeps, the more unbelievably vanilla it tastes and smells.


And you know the bits that get left behind in your sieve? Don’t throw them away! Put them in another jar and use wherever you’ll be straining what you’re making. Think vanilla chai made with chaga, vanilla custard churned into ice cream and drizzled with damson syrup, or vanilla hot chocolate with home made rosehip marshmallows floating on top! Before every use you will need to give it a very good stir as the vanilla seeds form a thick mat at the top of the jar!


Normally, when you make a glycerite with a dry herb you add water to it at a ratio of about 70% glycerine to 30% water. This is to help the glycerine extract the constituents from the menstruum and tone down the sweetness a bit. I would suggest making a big batch of neat extract and diluting about 70ml at a time (brings it up to 100ml of extract) to make it easier to use and pour while preserving the life of your main batch. Remember, especially after it ages, this is quite a lot stronger than regular vanilla extract you would buy so feel free to use less than your recipe states. The older your glycerite is, the more heady the flavour! 

If you would like to try a bottle of my Not So Vanilla Extract, get in touch as I do sell it! Or you could always make your own. :)

Muhaimina Said-Allsopp