Two weeks ago, Melissa and I went to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, and I saw them: the Brentwood corn farmers who perch their table at one corner of the building and sell out of their stock within just two hours. Their ears of corn, which have the color of a delicate custard, are among the sweetest I've ever had. (Modern eating corn has been bred to extreme sweetness to compensate for the fact that its sugars begin their path to flavorless starch as soon as you lop the ear off its stalk.)
I bought four ears.
They weren't destined for the pot or the grill. They were headed straight for the Glace-A-Tron 6000. My friend Tom had mentioned the sweet corn ice cream he saw on a trip to New York last year, and I filed the idea away for months, waiting for the season's bounty.
Neither of my ice cream books have a recipe for corn ice cream, and I forgot to ask Tom for details about the ones he sampled in New York, but I had a good idea of how it would work. Eggs will transform just about any liquid into custard, so I swapped some of my baseline recipe's half-and-half for the "corn milk" I got from pushing the fat kernels through a food mill, about 1 cup from the 4 ears. One taste of the pale, sugary liquid and I reduced my normal sugar proportions from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup . Finally, I added an extra egg yolk to adjust for the fact that I had removed some of the total fat when I replaced half-and-half with corn milk.
The result was almost perfect: Intense corn flavor trapped in ice cream. But it wasn't quite right. Think of arcing your spoon through a scoop of ice cream. The frozen cream curls off in a smooth line. On my scoop, the cream sheared off in large chunks. And while the corn flavor was intense, it was also one-dimensional. It tasted of pure corn but lacked depth.
A week later, Melissa and I shopped at the Berkeley farmers' market. I saw ears of corn and snatched up another four.
Did you know that at Chez Panisse, they don't use any prep cooks? The evening's cooks prep their own ingredients and adjust the final dishes based on the quality of the produce. It seems like an odd idea—how much do they really change in midstream?—until you're faced with four ears of corn that have nothing except a name in common with the four you bought the week before.
When I ground the kernels in my food mill, I ended up with two tablespoons of juice, a far cry from the 16 I had used the week before. I couldn't imagine the meager amount affecting the final taste. I didn't have time to go back to the market for more, so I improvised. I pureed the kernels with a bit of water and poured the lumpy, squishy mess onto fine-mesh cheesecloth. I gathered the corners to make a sack and began wringing the corn purée, squeezing first with my hands and then twisting the cheesecloth down and down, trying to make a diamond out of the rough goo. Finally, I had a cup of liquid.
This batch of corn milk didn't need a sugar reduction—a different breed, or a relatively long time since harvest? I did, however, replace the half-and-half with cream, and I added cayenne pepper to give the ice cream the depth that its spiritual ancestor had lacked. In fact, I added too much. But other than that, the ice cream was exactly what I wanted, with a perfect texture and a rich, corn flavor that had some kick.
I rarely publish recipes here at OWF, as I've said before, and the corn ice cream illustrates the reason. Recipes provide a template, but they can't know your ingredients. Cookbook authors publish individual experiences, but even when they've been tested by others, they don't represent a universal truth. Which corn ice cream recipe should I print? The one that assumes you have sweet, juicy ears, or the one that assumes you have drier, less sweet ears? You have to understand what a recipe wants to achieve in order to fit your ingredients and your tastes. That's cooking.
Labels: Culinary Explorations, Curmudgeon