For Maryland white corn lovers, this is high season, a treasured slice of time when life is as good as a buttery, salty ear of fresh corn on the cob. Although corn on the cob is arguably the best way to enjoy it, there are a lot of other iterations of corn that are pretty wonderful too. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino points out, one thing that always makes our eyes brighten is the mention of corn pudding on the menu.
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Corn pudding is so simple: it's essentially custard with kernels of corn stirred in. It can be so sweet that it's practically a dessert, or it can be so savory that it becomes a tasty side dish. Regardless, it's a great delivery vehicle for summer corn flavor.
Let's start with the custard part. A very simple recipe like the one celebrated African-American cook Edna Lewis came up with features eggs, milk, a little sugar and melted butter. Using a ratio of one large egg per cup of milk, this will give you a nice custard, but it may not be dense enough to support the corn kernels. If your custard is too thin, all the corn will end up on the bottom.
So how do you thicken it? Various recipes call for flour, corn starch, corn meal, sour cream, and frequently, corn muffin mix.
As for the corn, well come on, you have to go with fresh corn right off the cob.
I would disdain any recipe that called for canned cream corn or canned corn kernels.
Using a sharp knife, just cut down the length of the cob, not too deep, and catch the half kernels and their juice in a bowl. Use a fork to break up the long strips of attached kernels, since we want nice independent single kernels of corn.
Jerry has recently invested in a kitchen tool called a corn cutter. This is a long wooden oblong with a deep groove running the length, perfect for holding an ear of corn. Halfway down is a little hole with some spiky teeth. Just slide an ear of corn up and down, and the teeth will cut off the kernels and help collect the corn milk.
Late summer corn can be quite sweet, but if not, sugar and honey work very well as a sweetener. And if you don't mind a rather darker end product, molasses adds a lot of down-home flavor to the pudding. And don't forget to balance the sugar with a little salt and pepper.
Standard non-corn ingredients pop up in quite a few recipes. I've seen lots that call for onions, shallots, grated cheddar cheese, and savory spices like marjoram and nutmeg, and although this seems like gilding the lily, vanilla.
Baking the pudding is a gentle process. A moderate oven for about 30 minutes gets the job done, but to be really slick about it, try individual ramekins and a "bain marie". This is simply a baking dish deep enough to hold the ramekins and enough boiling water to come about half way up the sides. You put the whole shootin' match into the oven and bake at low heat.
Essentially, corn pudding can stand alone as a star side dish, or you can doctor it up according to whatever tickles your fancy.
One variation I came up with over thirty years ago, arose out of a vacation on the Outer Banks. I tossed in some thinly sliced bits of cured Smithfield ham and a bit of finely minced red pepper for color, and called it Corolla Corn Pudding. I'll give you the recipe.
Sort of along the same lines, I spotted a recipe for Chesapeake Corn Pudding that featured lump crabmeat and finely cut up seeded tomatoes. I guess a pinch of Old Bay wouldn't hurt.
You can go Latino with corn pudding. Try a Mexican version with peppers, both mild and hot, some yellow onions, and a handful of shredded cheese.
However you chose to prepare it, corn pudding will always be welcome at the table, and it is a great way to enjoy our wonderful Maryland sweet corn.