In Lucky Peach no. 3, Karen Leibowitz reflects with fondness on the food at Dominique Crenn's Atelier Crenn and says that there dishes are offered up like tactile poems that register both emotionally and intellectually. That resonated with me--though I haven't been to Atelier Crenn, a lot of the food that I've been reading about lately, that I've eaten on occasion, has had a kindred sort of thoughtfulness to it. It hasn't just been about the magic of certain flavours and textures. It's been about capturing a moment, drawing deep from the well of common memory through flavour and texture and evoking just the right feeling. I'm thinking here of things like Grant Achatz' Beef, Elements of Root Beer or even Christina Tosi's from-scratch Funfetti Birthday Cake--food that is more than whatever you're met with on the plate.
Though the thinking that happens in my kitchen typically runs closer to the pragmatic than to the sublime, I am in the habit of daydreaming about food. Lately, I've had summer on the mind. I'm not sure quite why, but I've been wanting to put together something that just tastes of summer. Maybe it's just that it's the most exuberant of seasons, the one with the longest, brightest days, the one that is all blooms and fruit and song, even long after the sun goes down, the one whose intensities are only matched by their fleetingness (think, summer storms)--who wouldn't want to taste that on a spoon? So if Dominique Crenn composes tactile poems that recall the flavours of her upbringing, I guess I've been daydreaming of a paean to summer, one that you might eat from a chilled glass by the spoonful.
A few days ago, I stopped daydreaming and set to work in the kitchen. I cooked down a few handfuls of blackberries to a sweet, jammy mess. I cut pearly corn kernels from their cobs. I steeped these in a milky bath. I whisked in some cream, some gelatin, poured it all into glasses, and held my breath.
This paean of mine, this paean turned panna cotta--it's still mostly just a daydream. There are a few lines to it for now--spoonfuls that recall unmistakably the melting sweetness of a good ear of corn, fingers and mouths stained purple from an afternoon of berry-picking, and, maybe, just faintly, poolside barbecues and full bellies. But it isn't there yet. It doesn't say quite nearly enough. Still, sweet corn and blackberries make for a good panna cotta in their own right, so I'm content for now to eat panna cotta and daydream a little more.
Sweet Corn Panna Cotta
Bits and pieces rather liberally adapted from Epicurious, the Seattle Times, and the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook
2 ears of sweet corn
175 ml / 3/4 cup whole milk
310 ml + 155 ml / 1 1/3 cup + 2/3 cup heavy cream
5-6 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 1/4 gelatin sheets or 1 1/4 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1 cup blackberries + more for garnishing
100 g / 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Shuck the corn and remove the kernels with a knife. Break one of the cobs into four pieces and reserve.
Combine the milk and 5 tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir as needed. Strain the milk into a medium saucepan. Reserve the corn kernels for another use.
Add 310 ml of cream, the salt, and the corn cob pieces to the milk. Return to a simmer, then cover, remove from heat, and let steep for 30 minutes. Remove the cob pieces and discard. Strain the mixture again and return it to a small saucepan.
Bloom the gelatin. If using sheets, soak them in a small bowl of cool water for about 2 minutes. If the gelatin still has hard bits in it, it needs more time. If it's so soft that it's falling apart, it's overbloomed. Discard and start again. Gently squeeze the bloomed gelatin to remove any excess water. If using powdered gelatin, sprinkle it evenly onto the surface of 2 tablespoons of cold water in a small bowl. Allow the granules to soften entirely in the cold for water for 3 to 5 minutes.
Bring the cream mixture to a simmer. Remove from heat and whisk in the gelatin to dissolve. Whisk in the remaining cream, being careful not to incorporate too much air. Taste the mixture and add sugar as needed--you want the corn's sweetness, and not its more vegetal notes, to come through. Divide the mixture among four 6-oz glasses. Transfer to the refrigerator to set for at least 3 hours or overnight.
Meanwhile, make the blackberry sauce. Bring the blackberries and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until reduced by about half, crushing the berries with the back of a wooden spoon occasionally. Press the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to separate it from the seeds. Chill in the refrigerator.
To serve, drizzle each panna cotta with blackberry sauce and garnish with whole blackberries.