When the days grow shorter and corn is harder to come by, the ears smaller and less plump, turn to corn pudding for the perfect marriage of butter and corn. The sweet, silky concoction could be called "carnal pudding," but we'll just call it heavenly.
Corn Pudding, End-Of-Summer Showstopper
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.
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.