By Sara Moulton
The Southern staple known as spoonbread _ a particular specialty of Kentucky and Virginia _ is a Native American dish adopted early on by America’s earliest European settlers. George Washington happened to be a big fan and often served it up at Mount Vernon, Virginia. I love it because of its puddinglike richness, a creamy, airy cross between cornbread and a souffle. Creating that airiness is a matter of separating the eggs and beating the whites, then folding them into the batter.
The recipe’s key ingredient is corn, and since this is the height of the fresh corn season, I decided to amp up the traditional recipe with corn kernels. Half of them are pureed _ adding to the bread’s creaminess _ while the remainder is folded in for crunch.
What should you look for when buying fresh corn? Start by confirming that each ear is full and thick, with kernels growing all the way to the tip. The easiest way to do so would be to strip away the husk and take a squint at the tip, but that manoeuvr makes the ear unsellable. Instead, use your fingers to feel if the ear is full at the top by pressing the tip through the husk. And if you discover a tiny bug on the ear after shucking it at home, just wash it away, secure in the knowledge that no pesticides were used in the corn’s cultivation.
Some varieties of corn sold at the market will stay sweet for four or five days. I prefer regular corn because it tastes more like corn to me, but its sugar starts to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked, which means it’s best to cook the corn as soon as you can (keep it chilled until you do).
I call for fine cornmeal in this recipe for Fresh Corn Spoonbread with Sharp Cheddar and Chiles, but you’re welcome to use the medium-ground variety if you want a bit of gritty crunch. The buttermilk provides some tangy contrast to the corn’s sweetness, but if you’re no fan of tang (or don’t want to buy buttermilk), substitute regular whole milk.
FRESH CORN SPOONBREAD WITH SHARP CHEDDAR AND CHILES
Start to finish: 1 hour, 10 minutes (45 active)
2 cups fresh corn kernels
2 cups buttermilk
2/3 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, optional
4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
One 4.5 ounce can chopped green chilies, drained
4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
In a blender, puree 1 cup of the corn with 1 cup of the buttermilk until smooth.
Preheat oven to 425 F. In a medium saucepan stir together the pureed corn with the remaining buttermilk, cornmeal, butter, salt and cayenne, if using, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and simmer, whisking constantly, 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, chilies and the remaining 1 cup corn kernels; let cool while you beat the egg whites.
In a bowl with electric beaters beat the whites with a pinch of salt until they are frothy, add the cream of tartar and beat until they form soft peaks. Add the yolks to the cornmeal mixture, whisking constantly. Stir one-fourth of the whites into the cornmeal mixture and then fold in the remaining whites gently until they are just incorporated. Spread the mixture evenly in a buttered shallow 8-inch square baking dish and bake on a rack in the lower third of the oven until set, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
This July 2018 photo shows fresh cornspoonbread in New York. This dish is from a recipe by Sara Moulton. (Sara Moulton via AP)