Encased in soft dough or puff pastry, mellow mushrooms come into their own. Just go easy on the garlic.
The mushrooms I like cooking with most are those that have been in the fridge for slightly longer than they should. Those that have darkened in colour, become a little damp, and taken on a dank, woodsy smell - almost on the verge of becoming soggy. The ones that many - perhaps I should say most - people would have thrown out. It is at this point when their flavour is at its most wild and fungal. When they taste the very essence of mushroom.
Never having bought into the tyranny of the sell-by date, I tend to use my intuition when it comes to whether something is past it or not, but the fact is that some ingredients are better when they are used on "the edge". Soft fruits such as raspberries, grapes, tomatoes, even bananas can be at their most useful and flavoursome just as they are approaching the over-ripe stage. That said, we must be careful with meat, fish and dairy produce. The rest is really up to us.
A mellowed, dark-skinned mushroom is a wonderful thing to fry in a pan with butter and garlic. (It is tempting to over-use garlic with mushrooms: a single clove is often enough for a pan full of mushrooms.) At this point in the year I will add a few thyme leaves, wrap them loosely in sheets of puff pastry and bake them. In effect, a pasty. But one that is elegant enough to eat as a first course. Light pastry - a cross between shortcrust and rough puff - and a fleetingly garlicky filling gave us one memorable light lunch last week.
A more substantial receptacle for my fungi is Chinese bun dough, steamed to give a soft and fluffy crust. These are incredibly easy: a basic bread dough but with a little sugar added, cooked over boiling water instead of being baked in an oven. They are something one is tempted to leave to the experts, yet are almost absurdly simple. The trick is to make a very heavily seasoned filling to shine through the ball of bland dough. Stuffing could not be easier. We made a pungent dip to serve alongside, but I'm not sure we needed it. It was mushroom madness we were celebrating, in all its dark, fungal magic; we just needed something to wrap them up with.
This is a traditional Chinese bun dough. You might like a little chilli sauce to dip them in. Makes 12-15 small buns.
For the dough:
plain flour 375g
fast-action dried yeast 2 level tsp
sugar 1 tbsp
warm water 200ml
For the mushroom filling:
onion 1, medium
a little butter and oil
assorted mushrooms 250g
garlic 2 cloves
honey 1 tsp
caster sugar 1 tsp
five-spice powder 2 tsp
dark soy sauce 2 tsp
Make the dough. Put the flour in a mixing bowl, add the dried yeast and sugar, and mix with enough of the water to get a soft, sticky but rollable dough. Knead the dough on a floured board for about four minutes then set aside in a warm place covered by a cloth for an hour or so, to rise.
While the dough is proving, peel the onion, chop it finely and let it soften in a shallow pan with a little butter and oil until soft and pale gold in colour. Chop the mushrooms finely then add them, together with the peeled and chopped garlic, to the onions and continue cooking until they are sizzling. Stir in the honey, sugar, five-spice powder and soy, then season with black pepper and, if necessary, a little salt, tasting carefully. Set aside to cool.
Tear off a piece of the dough, make a hollow in the centre with your thumb, then push in a good teaspoon or two of the mushroom stuffing. Close the dough around the filling, pinching it together with your thumb and finger to seal. Continue with the rest of the dough, then place the buns in a steamer and leave, covered with a cloth, for a further 20 minutes until they have regained some of their bulk.
Place the buns in a steamer over boiling water and cook under a tight lid for 15 to 20 minutes until light and fluffy.
GARLIC MUSHROOM PASTIES
If you prefer, make these with puff pastry. You will need a 375g sheet, and expect a little left over. Makes 4.
For the pastry:
plain flour 175g, plus extra for rolling
baking powder half tsp
fine salt ½ tsp
unsalted butter 100g, cut into small cubes
egg yolk 1
a little milk
egg 1, beaten
For the mushroom filling:
assorted mushrooms 250g
thyme sprigs 4
garlic 1 clove
Put the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl, add the cold butter, cut into small pieces, and rub into the flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the egg yolk and then enough milk to make a soft but rollable dough. Pat into a ball and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Cut the mushrooms into halves and quarters depending on their size. Strip the thyme leaves from their stalks - you need a couple of teaspoonfuls. Melt the butter in a shallow pan; crush the clove of garlic flat, then add to the butter. Add the mushrooms and cook for five minutes or until golden. Ideally, they will be a little sticky on their cut sides. Salt and pepper them and set aside.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. On a generously floured board, roll the dough out to 1cm thick, fold it in by thirds, then roll and fold again. Chill for a further 30 minutes. Roll the dough into a 24cm square, then cut that into four equal squares.
Divide the mushrooms between each square of pastry, piling them in the centre, then brush a little beaten egg around the edges, bring the opposite corners of the squares together and seal loosely along the edges so the seals break here and there to reveal the mushrooms within. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the outside of the pastry with beaten egg then bake for about 40 minutes until golden. Allow to cool a little before eating.
Photo - It's a wrap: garlic mushroom pasties. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer