Corn Pudding, End-Of-Summer Showstopper

Simple Corn Pudding i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Simple Corn Pudding
T. Susan Chang for NPR

"Better than sex!" sang Chef Richard, a quart of half-and-half in his hand.

"Hmm??" I said, at a loss. It was a small neighborhood eatery in New York's theater district, and I was helping out in the kitchen to see what restaurant work was like. "Helping," in my case, meant trying not to look useless while the sous-chef and prep guys dashed around in an ultra-competent choreographed routine punctuated by Spanglish and flashing knives.

"My corn pudding," he explained, sliding a giant hotel pan foaming with corn kernels and thick cream into the oven. He claimed that one of his regular customers, a theater-going grandmother, had tried the corn pudding some years earlier. She did a startling impression of Meg Ryan's famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally, and informed a bemused chef that his corn pudding was better than sex. And from that moment on, at least as far as the kitchen staff was concerned, it officially was.

Now Chef Richard, like many New Yorkers, was not above a little exaggeration from time to time. This was the theater district, after all, where every public table was a stage, and even my building's air shaft rang with the voices of rehearsing understudies. Yet when the corn pudding came steaming out of the oven and I tasted it, his story didn't seem all that far-fetched.

If you stop to think about what you love about sweet corn, you might first think about its milky sweetness, or maybe its fresh, grassy scent. But for me, it's all about the butter. The freshest corn has a luxurious buttery taste of its own, which only becomes more pronounced when amplified with actual butter. Really, is there anything more emblematic of summer than the highly effective butter delivery system that is fresh corn on the cob?

Yet when the days grow shorter and corn is harder to come by, the ears smaller and less plump, it's corn pudding you turn to for the perfect marriage of butter and corn. You can grate the kernels off, or cut them off and then blend them into a sweet, sunshine-yellow hash that slides smoothly into a simple milk-and-egg batter. In the batter, melted butter once again becomes one with the corn. The eggs give it lift, the flour binds it together, the crust turns to gold, the earth moves.

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the regular cookbook reviewer for The Boston Globe, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

If you're lucky, you may have had the experience of picking corn in a field or a backyard garden. You might remember rushing through the thick press of upthrust stalks and damp silks and tassels, husking as you went, to dump the ears in a waiting pot of boiling water before the sugars turned to starch. It's a good practice — not to mention good exercise — even though a number of super-sweet hybrids keep their sugars for a day or two, or even more.

When it comes to the early autumn treat that is corn pudding, though, there's nothing wrong with day-old, slightly starchy corn. The long bake enhances the savory, complex flavors we think of as "corny," and because you add a little sugar, there's still plenty of sweetness and caramelization.

Now back to what we'll call the Better-than-Sex Cafe, miles and miles of paved concrete away from any living cornfield. If I'd had any sense, I would have copied down Chef Richard's recipe on the spot. Maybe I didn't believe his outlandish claim, or maybe I didn't want to risk being disappointed. It wouldn't have been really practical to do a side-by-side comparison. By the time the next late summer rolled around, I had left the colorful society of the theater district for good.

A decade passed with no attempt, on my part, to revisit the corn pudding or test its claims. Then while I was on vacation this August with my family, we found ourselves with a heap of day-old corn and a cool evening suitable for baking. It seemed like a good time to try.

I threw the pudding together with little ceremony and a bare minimum of measurement, but it started smelling great almost immediately and, an hour later, came out of the oven to an electric hum of anticipation. Now it's possible that my in-laws were merely being polite, because they're very polite people. Lake Michigan isn't Manhattan. However, I think the sudden silence, interrupted only by fork sounds, told me everything I needed to know.

So if you think corn season ends when you hang up your flip-flops for the season, think again. Set your oven high, crack a pale ale and give corn pudding a chance. It just might rock your world.

Simple Corn Pudding

This basic recipe is corn comfort at its best. You can grate all of the kernels for a slightly smoother pudding, or, for a toothier version, you can leave some kernels whole as I've done here.

Simple Corn Pudding i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Simple Corn Pudding
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 or 6 ears of corn, husked (depending on size)

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream or milk

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

5 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the butter in a baking dish (an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish or iron skillet works well) and slide into the oven so the butter melts while the oven is preheating.

Using a box grater, coarsely grate the kernels off four ears of corn. Use a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the remaining ears. Combine the corn kernels, sugar, cream or milk, flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Lightly beat the five eggs and add to the mixture.

When the oven has preheated and the butter in the baking dish has melted, carefully tilt the melted butter from the baking dish into the corn mixture and combine with a few swift strokes. Then tilt the buttered corn mixture back into the baking dish.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a golden crust has formed and the interior has set.

Roasted Hatch Chili Corn Pudding With Scallions

If you haven't tried Hatch chilies (grown in Hatch, N.M.), wait no longer. Smooth-skinned and light green, their sweetness and subdued fire come out when you roast them over a hot flame or in a heavy pan. They're in season at the same time as corn. Coincidence? I think not. If you can't get Hatch chilies, try other green chilies, such as poblano or serrano.

Roasted Hatch Chili Corn Pudding With Scallions i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Roasted Hatch Chili Corn Pudding With Scallions
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 green Hatch chilies

6 scallions, halved lengthwise and chopped into 6-inch lengths

6 ears fresh corn, husked

1/4 cup ricotta

4 large eggs

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup whole or 2 percent milk

5 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the butter in a baking dish (an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish or iron skillet works well) and slide into the oven so the butter melts while the oven is preheating.

Heat a heavy pan (preferably an iron skillet) over a medium-high flame. When the surface is hot enough to make a water droplet dance, toss the chilies and scallions into the dry pan. Lightly char the scallions, turning them with tongs, and remove to a cutting board. Let the chilies blister and blacken a little on the surface, but not so much that the chilies start to cook. Drop the charred chilies in a paper bag, and allow them to steam while you prepare the rest of the batter.

Using a box grater, coarsely grate the kernels off 4 ears of corn. Use a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the remaining ears. Set aside the grated and ungrated corn kernels.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta and eggs, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Add the corn kernels, sugar, milk, flour and salt.

Remove the chilies from the bag and rub off the blackened skins as best you can (don't run the peppers under water). Stem and seed them, and chop roughly, along with the charred scallions. Add them to the corn mixture.

When the oven has preheated and the butter in the baking dish has melted, carefully tilt the melted butter from the baking dish into the corn mixture and combine with a few swift strokes. Then tilt the buttered corn mixture back into the baking dish.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a golden crust has formed and the interior has set.

Smoky Chipotle Corn Pudding

This is a slightly drier, cornier corn pudding with a deep, earthen flavor. I like it best with dried, toasted and rehydrated chipotles. But it would still be mighty fine if you used chipotles en adobo from a can.

Smoky Chipotle Corn Pudding i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Smoky Chipotle Corn Pudding
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 or 6 ears of fresh corn, husked (depending on size)

6 cloves garlic, with skins

2 dried chipotle chilies

2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds

2 teaspoons dried oregano

3 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup whole or 2 percent milk

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the butter in a baking dish (an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish or iron skillet works well) and slide into the oven so the butter melts while the oven is preheating.

With a sharp knife, cut the kernels off all the ears of corn and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly until you have a very rough puree (you want to still see partial kernels). Set aside.

Heat a small, heavy pan (preferably a cast iron skillet) over medium-high heat. Add garlic cloves and dried chilies. Press the chilies against the hot surface with a small spatula, turning, until they start to release their aroma and a bit of their oils (the surface will start to shine a little). Do not allow them to blacken.

Place the toasted chilies in a heatproof bowl and pour very hot or boiling water over them to cover, and let sit for about 15 minutes. Continue toasting the garlic cloves until the skins have begun to blacken and the clove within starts to soften. Remove to a cutting board.

In the same pan, toast the cumin seeds for a few minutes, until they release their aroma. Add the oregano and toast for 30 seconds or so. Grind the cumin and oregano in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

When the soaked chilies have softened, drain, stem and seed them. Peel the garlic. Chop the chilies and garlic finely together; it's OK if they turn into something of a paste.

Combine the corn kernels, honey, milk, flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the prepared chilies, garlic, cumin and oregano. Lightly beat the eggs and add to the mixture.

When the oven has preheated and the butter in the baking dish has melted, carefully tilt the melted butter from the baking dish into the corn mixture and combine with a few swift strokes. Then tilt the buttered corn mixture back into the baking dish.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a golden crust has formed and the interior has set.

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