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SWEET CORN SWEET DESSERTS

Let's go beyond corn bread. Sweet corn cream pie and delicate panna cotta are the perfect ways to celebrate your garden harvest.

San Francisco Chronicle

Leaf through any classic American cookbook and you're bound to find pages extolling the virtues and versatility of corn.

"Sweet corns taste delicious uncooked in salads and salsas," says one edition of the Joy of Cooking, which also provides a laundry list of the vegetable's best accompaniments, from butter and bacon to chili powder, basil and lime. The savory uses are seemingly endless.

At no point, however, will you find mention of corn's affinity for desserts.

Perhaps it's because decades ago, when most of these books were written, the rich, buttery vegetable wasn't nearly as sweet as it is now. In years since, sugar-laden hybrids have become the favored variety, pleasing a growing collective sweet tooth.

The varieties we're finding now are almost candylike, even if the ears sit for a while in supermarket produce bins. Whirred into a puree, fresh corn adds moisture when baked into cakes or cookies, and can also flavor custard and puddings. Plus, corn is a natural partner for stone fruit and berries. It's a wonder, then, that we've seen so little of the crop at the end of the meal.

At Moss Room in San Francisco, executive pastry chef Rachel Leising has a sweet corn panna cotta on the menu. "It's selling quite well," she says, adding that those who take the plunge - even if a little skeptical - say it tastes just like summer.

Her smooth, silky dessert is made by steeping cream with corn kernels and cobs, long enough for the vegetable to impart the slightly sweet flavor. The recipe couldn't be simpler, crafted from just a handful of ingredients and garnished with ripe berries.

Using a similar steeping method, it's also possible to flavor thick, sweet custard, as in the accompanying pie recipe inspired by banana and coconut cream pies. The corn-scented pudding gets lightened with whipped cream, topped with sweet-tart blueberries and folded into a graham cracker crust. The gentle notes of corn come through at the end of each bite.

These desserts are just the thing to make summer's iconic vegetable the stuff of every dish in the meal.

Off the cob

The accompanying recipes all require you to get the corn kernels off the cob. Sure, you can buy a fancy corn-zipper, but the old-fashioned way is just as quick.

To remove kernels, first cut the cob in half, so that there is a flat end to place down on the tray (if you're working with a small cob, you can simply cut off the tip to achieve the same flat surface). Line a tray or cutting board with a towel to catch falling corn. Place the cob, flat side down, and use a sharp chef's knife to slice the corn from top to bottom as you rotate the cob.

FAST FACTS

Corn nuggets

It used to be that you had to eat corn shortly after picking to ensure sweetness, but today's varieties travel well and retain their sweetness long after harvest. Here are a few types of corn that you'll find on grocery store shelves and at farmers markets:

White: White corn tends to have a subtler, sugary flavor with small, tight kernels. Accompanying recipes all use white corn.

Yellow: Compared with white corn, these golden varieties are richer and a little more buttery, with larger, less juicy kernels. The ears are also smoother.

Butter and Sugar: Also called bicolored, these cobs boast a mixture of yellow and white kernels.

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Sweet Corn Panna Cotta

2 teaspoons powdered gelatin

1 large ear fresh corn

3-1/2 cups heavy cream

-1/3 cup sugar

Fresh berries or other garnish, to serve

Place 2 teaspoons of cold water into a small bowl and sprinkle the powdered gelatin over it. Let soften, about 5 minutes.

Scrape corn kernels from the cob using a sharp knife. Make sure to get only the kernels and not the cob.

In a medium saucepan, heat cream over low heat with kernels and cobs until it just begins to simmer. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Discard the cobs. Puree the corn and cream with an immersion blender or a regular blender, then strain.

Set the bowl with the gelatin over a pot of barely simmering water to melt. Add to the still warm cream-corn mixture. Add sugar and stir to dissolve completely. Strain again.

Refrigerate the mixture until very cool, then pour into eight individual 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups. Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight, until firm.

Serve in the ramekins, garnished with berries. Or, remove from the ramekins by running a small paring knife around the edge, and carefully inverting onto a plate (the panna cotta is very soft).

Serves 8.

Source: Rachel Leising, pastry chef at the Moss Room in San Francisco

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Sweet Corn Cream Pie With Blueberries

For the crust:

1-1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

-1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of kosher salt

Pinch of fresh ground nutmeg

6 tablespoons unsalted melted butter

For the filling:

3 ears fresh white corn

2-1/2 cups half-and-half

-1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of kosher salt

6 egg yolks

3 tablespoons cornstarch

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

To assemble:

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon sugar

1 pint blueberries

2 tablespoons fresh white corn kernels

For the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, salt and nutmeg in a bowl. Pour in the melted butter and stir until well combined. Press the crumbs along the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until set and slightly browned. Set aside and let cool.

To make the filling, cut the kernels off the ears of corn, and break cobs in half. Put corn and cobs in a medium saucepan, and add half-and-half. Heat over medium-low until just boiling, then remove from heat and steep for 30 minutes. Remove and discard the cobs; puree corn and half-and-half in a blender or food processor. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve.

Pour the strained half-and-half back into the pot, then add the -1/2 cup sugar, vanilla and salt, and slowly heat until just beginning to boil. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the cornstarch .

Remove the half-and-half from the stovetop and set next to the bowl containing the yolk mixture. Temper the yolks by slowing adding a ladleful of the half-and-half to the yolks while whisking constantly. Do this about 2 to 3 times, then pour the yolk mixture back into the pot with the remaining half-and-half, whisking constantly.

Return the mixture to medium heat on the stove, and whisk continuously until the custard begins to thicken. When it reaches a pudding consistency, remove from heat and whisk in the butter, piece by piece, until incorporated. Pour into a bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap, so that a skin doesn't form. Cool slightly, then refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to overnight.

To assemble, whip cream and 1 teaspoon sugar to soft peaks. Gently fold half the whipped cream into the corn custard.

Line the bottom of the pie crust with 1 cup blueberries, then top with the custard. Add blueberries to the top of the pie in two to three circles around the edge, then spread remaining whipped cream over the center of the pie. Garnish with fresh corn kernels. Serve immediately, or refrigerate up to 36 hours.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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