Two projects today - both tasty, and both for making those red mushrooms seen so often at Christmas. The how-to for both in a second, but first a few words about why mushrooms at Christmas?
I love these mushrooms, don't get me wrong. I have a number of mushroom ornaments for our Christmas tree as well as other cute little mushroom decorations, some of which I leave out year round. But I've always been curious about their relationship to the holiday (just not curious enough to research it until today).
And it turns out, no one really knows for sure. But Sheila Brown in this interesting article on the Christmas mushroom details some of the theories. First, the amanita Muscaria or "fly agaric" mushroom (aren't those both unappealing names? especially the common one?) is considered a sign of luck, which is why it's often included on Christmas cards. Second, it's associated with the evergreens used to decorate at Christmas. Basically, the fungi grow around evergreens and have an interdependent relationship with them, so they've become associated with each other. Some people think, probably wrongly, that Santa dresses in red and white because of these guys. Oh, and one more interesting bit of trivia: this type of mushroom is called the "fly" agaric because flies are attracted to it. (Not sure what the agaric part means except maybe it's the gagging sound people make because of all those gross flies.) Folks used to put bits of the mushrooms in bowls of milk; the flies would drink the milk and mushroom mixture, get drunk, and fly into things and die. Doesn't that sound nice and Christmas-y?
One last crucial piece of information. Mushrooms in the amanita family are poisonous - ranging from moderately bad news like these ones to extremely/fatally toxic - so better to avoid nibbling on them, especially because they all look pretty much alike. Unless they're these sugary amanitas that I'll tell you how to make.
First, because they're so simple, the gumdrop ones. Basically all you need is a red gumdrop, a white gumdrop, a knife, and a high tolerance for sticky fingers. First, carve a stem shape out of the white gumdrop, making sure to cut the sugary part off the bottom (so the mushroom will stick to whatever surface you put it on and remain more or less upright) and the top (so the red part will stick to it). Save the extra white parts because you need them to make the little white dots. Next, cut the bottom off the red gumdrop. Then chop and mush little bits of the leftover white gumdrop to make tiny dots. Carefully peel the dots off your fingers (easier said than done) and stick them to the red gumdrop in a pleasing, mushroom-y pattern. (On real mushrooms, those white dots are little bits of the stem still sticking to the cap from before the cap emerged.)
Then stick the red top on the white bottom, squish it around a bit until it sits nicely, and you're done. You can eat it right away, but if you let it sit out in the air for a few days, it gets hard and looks pleasantly translucent and decorative sitting on a shelf or hanging from the Christmas tree (just be sure to stick the hook in before it gets totally hard if you're going to hang it).
Next up: the no-bake mint mushrooms. I found this recipe, which my daughter and I used many years ago to make little snowmen, on a scrap of paper tucked in a cookbook. I think but was unable to confirm, that we originally got it from American Girl magazine. At any rate, it works equally well for snowmen or mushrooms, as you please.
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon mint extract
1/8 teaspoon salt1 cup confectioner's sugar
A few drops red food coloring
White nonpareil candies (if you can find a jar of just the white ones you're lucky. Otherwise you'll have to pick the white ones out of the mix of a zillion colors. Or you could go buy a box of the tasty Sno-Cap candies, brush the white balls off into a bowl and eat the chocolate so it doesn't go to waste.)
Directions: In a small bowl, combine the butter, corn syrup, extract and salt. Gradually stir in confectioners' sugar. Knead by hand for 1-2 minutes or until mixture becomes pliable. Depending on the weather conditions, you may need to add more confectioner's sugar. The dough should be pretty stiff (or the mushrooms will tend to "melt" and collapse in a most disturbing way) - but you don't want it to get crumbly.
Divide the dough in half and place in separate bowls. Leave one half white, and add a few generous glops of the red food coloring to the other, stirring and kneading to combine well. You may need to add a little extra sugar at this point to keep it firm enough.
After accidentally smushing a few of my early attempts, I hit on this method for forming the mushrooms. (I made teeny tiny ones, which appeal to my love of all things miniature, as well as to my limited tolerance for candy that doesn't involve chocolate - why waste the calories? - but you could always make bigger ones; the process would be the same.) Tear off a piece of waxed paper for a work surface. Pinch off some white dough and roll a log to whatever width you desire. Cut off the length you want. Shape the stem some more, so that it's wide at the base and tapers toward the top. Tap both ends against the waxed paper to flatten and leave to air dry a bit. Make a whole bunch more stems. (You may want to cover the bowls of dough with a damp paper towel while you're working so the dough doesn't dry out too much.)
Next, form the caps by roll a small ball and flattening a bit. Experiment with different shapes. (I like variety in my mushrooms, but you could always strive for uniformity if you prefer). Pour a small quantity of nonpareils in a shallow bowl. Then press your fingertip against a damp paper towel and use it to chase around and pick up individual white nonpareils. It's a bit painstaking at first, but you'll get better. Gently press them over the cap. After you've made a bunch of caps like this, dampen the top of the stem with a wet fingertip, and carefully pick the caps up and place them on the stems, pushing them down slightly so they'll adhere well. Allow to air dry for a few hours, and then they're good to eat!
These make a very pretty gift in a small tin - just make sure the get-ee realizes they're food. We had someone preserve her little snowmen for several years thinking they were decorations (and wondering why they had that odd minty freshness).