I couldn’t let August go by without writing about corn, a mainstay of the 18th-century Americans’ diet. I’ve posted several cornmeal-based recipes, but wanted to try one with fresh corn — especially the mysterious “green corn” I kept seeing in old recipes.
It turns out that “green corn” just refers to young ears of sweet corn, and also to varieties developed to ripen in early summer. This corn was often roasted by Native Americans and North American colonists, or used in stews. The forerunner of corn pudding was Native American succotash, corn stewed with vegetables like beans. But as Betty Fussell writes in The Story of Corn, whereas Native Americans sometimes added “hickory cream,” made from ground nuts, to thicken their corn stew, the settlers used cow’s milk, and often mixed in a little butter.
Over time, this simple dish evolved into a pudding made with eggs, and in the 19th century it was often made as a custard, with the addition of more butter (of course!), eggs, and a sweet sauce, as in Eliza Leslie’s recipe from Directions for Cookery (1837):
Take twelve ears of green corn, as it is called…and grate it. Have ready a quart of rich milk, and stir into it by degrees a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, and a quarter of a pound of sugar. Beat four eggs till quite light; and then stir them into the milk, &c. alternately with the grated corn, a little of each at a time. Put the mixture into a large buttered dish, and bake it four hours. It may be eaten either warm or cold, for sauce, beat together butter and white sugar in equal proportions, mixed with grated nutmeg.
I had trouble finding earlier, savory recipes for green corn pudding, even though it was supposedly a very popular dish. Perhaps this is because most 18th-century cookbooks available in America were written by English authors, and the English thought of fresh corn as animal feed, not suitable for human consumption. “They eat Indian corn in a variety of forms,” wrote English novelist Anthony Trollope of the American North, “but in my opinion, all bad.” (According to Paris-based blogger David Lebovitz, Europeans still feel this way, but for some reason the French will eat canned corn, just not fresh!)
I eventually made a recipe from The Early American Cookbook for a green corn pudding called “specialty of Ethan Allen,” the Revolutionary War hero. The recipe appears to be slightly modernized as the directions call for things like a specific oven temperature. At any rate, Allen called it “a most delicious dish when properly mixed and baked.” Nowadays, most corn puddings are made with cheese and sometimes chile peppers — a google search will turn up more “green chile corn pudding” than green corn pudding. If you like those cheesy, spicy puddings, you might find this simple version a little bland. You could try adding some cheese, in fact. But as is, the dish is good comfort food, and most kids should like it.
A note on the corn preparation: Some old recipes recommend cutting through each row of kernels with a knife, to release more of the corn “milk”:
Both the Ethan Allen recipe and Eliza Leslie’s call for grating the corn instead. According to Fussell, this would have been done with a board covered with nails. I opted to cut through the kernels row by row, then slice them off the cob with a corn “zipper,” a wonderful non-18th century gadget made by Kuhn Rikon. You can also cut the kernels off with a knife. (The CHOW Test Kitchen has a good video on how to do this safely and without making a mess.)
Green Corn Pudding
Adapted from The Early American Cookbook (Dr. Kristie Lynn and Robert W. Pelton, authors)
5 ears corn
3 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Shuck corn, then with a sharp knife, cut through the center of the kernels, working row by row. Then scrape the corn from the cobs, using a knife or corn zipper. Put the kernels and any “milk” that seeps from the cobs into a bowl and set aside.
2. Beat the egg yolks until thick. Stir in the corn, melted butter, sugar, and salt. Gradually beat in the milk.
3. Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold them into the corn mixture.
4. Pour pudding mixture into a buttered 8″ X 8″ X 2″ baking dish. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm.