Warm Santa Rosa Plum Torte with Sweet Corn Ice Cream
Until a few weeks ago, I somehow wasn’t aware of the existence of either Chef Patrick O’Connell or the Inn at Little Washington. But after I saw him featured on Chef’s Story, I was intrigued by his astute musings and self-taught background, so I ordered one of his cookbooks, Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine.
And now I’m a believer.
I like that his dishes are rooted firmly in American tradition, and their refinement involves allowing them to be the best they can be, without cutes-ifying or deconstructing them. Occasionally, European or Asian influences step in. Some of his dishes are based on classics but many are combinations that reflect a clever understanding of how flavors and textures can work together… like Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham (with garlic, chives, parmesan wafers, crispy onions, and optional white truffles)… Crab Cake “Sandwich” with Fried Green Tomatoes and Tomato Vinaigrette… Mussels with Orecchiette… Miniature Ham Biscuits with Mascarpone Pepper Jelly… Watermelon-Tequila Soup… Cabbage Braised in Champagne… Shavings of Country Ham with Parmesan, Pears, and Pine Nuts… Scallopine of Chicken with Grapefruit and Pink Peppercorns… Pan-Roasted Maine Lobster with Rosemary Cream…
Country ham and corn pop up a lot (and lemon verbena!), as do pictures of the Inn and its surroundings. It’s a wonderful way to do some culinary armchair traveling to the American Southeast. There are also pictures of nearly every dish, with their striking, yet logical, presentations; it’s beauty without fussiness — or gratuitous verticality, for that matter. His dishes look eatable.
His commentary is useful, and often amusing. In the intro, he describes the rituals of entertaining that existed in his childhood home, including his mother’s signature dish: “Little Nancy Etticoat in Her White Petticoat.” It involved placing a banana through a Dole pineapple ring, surrounding it with shredded iceberg lettuce, letting Hellman’s mayo drip down the sides, and finishing it off with a Maraschino cherry. O’Connell concludes the vignette with “all I can say is, that’s a dish I’ve never had the balls to serve.”
When I saw the recipe for this plum torte with sweet corn ice cream, I saw an opportunity to try out a recipe at just the right seasonal time and to experience O’Connell’s culinary sensibility.
The torte has a buttery, brown sugar and buttermilk-laced cake layer topped by plums that have been macerated in sugar and brandy (he calls for plum liqueur, but I didn’t have any) and a crumb topping rounded out with walnuts and spices. There’s also some orange zest in the cake that adds a lovely edge (incidentally, O’Connell has a great respect for the power of acidity in his dishes). My torte turned out puffier and less brown than the picture in the book, but it was good nonetheless.
The sweet corn ice cream seemed like a wild card, but I reasoned that cornmeal is used in fruity American desserts (such as shortcakes and pancakes); the ice cream is corn’s chance to both aggrandize its flavor and sidestep a gritty texture.
So, in this dessert, I see elements of buckles (the cake), crumbles/crisps (the crumb topping), shortcakes (the cornmeal), and pie (it’s baked in a pie pan). I usually have difficulty choosing which of those desserts to make with my fruit, so I was looking forward to making this all-in-one.
O’Connell provides a recipe for the ice cream, but it has eggs so I adapted one of my Philadelphia-style recipes for the infusion of corn kernels and cobs. Since corn goes well with eggs, a custard-based ice cream makes sense, but what can I say… I prefer to go eggless in ice creams whenever possible. I was thrilled by his use of maple syrup in the recipe. It accentuates corn so well, and I wouldn’t have thought to add it. And I think that the corn’s starch also helps keep the ice cream smooth when frozen, so it has a nice texture.
Individually, the torte and ice cream are very good and full of flavor. When eaten together, they tend to act like two strangers walking towards each other in opposite directions, though. A strong corn flavor is initially in the foreground… then a unique spark of epiphany occurs btw the sweet corn and the sweet-spicy plum together… and then the plum flavor steps into the spotlight for the rest of the bite.
Here’s the recipe I used for sweet corn ice cream, which reconciles methods from this cookbook, The Perfect Scoop, and my own sensibilities. It turned out a little sweet, so I’d recommend initially decreasing the sugar a little bit and then adjusting it to your tastes. Don’t decrease it too much, though, or else it can freeze too hard (since sugar helps keeps it soft). I used organic wherever possible.
Sweet Corn Ice Cream, Philadelphia Style
Yield: a scant Quart
1 cup + 1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1 c Whole Milk
100 g (1/2 cup) Sugar
2 Corn Cobs, shucked
1/4 tsp Vodka
2 Tbs Maple Syrup
Lay a corn cob flat on cutting board. Slicing vertically and rotating the cob, chop off all the kernels. Break the cob in half. Repeat with rmg cob.
Combine 1 cup cream, milk, sugar, salt, cobs, and kernels in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Take off the heat, cover, and infuse until it tastes like sweet corn, about an hour.
Strain into a storage container; discard cobs and kernels. Stir in 1 cup cream, vodka, and maple syrup.
Chill in refrigerator, then freeze in an ice cream machine.