When the Peruvian-Chinese restaurant Chifa opened in Los Angeles in late 2020, its dessert grabbed Instagram’s attention instantly: almond jelly in the shape of a corn cob, from jelly cake creator Lexie Park of Nunchi. The dessert hinted at trompe l’oeil — illusions that trick the eye — while also finding footing in the uncanny valley. Pale white, the jelly corn looked like Bunnicula had gotten ahold of one of summer’s best ears, while a pastel purple version looked as though it had been grown on another planet.
What seemed like a one-off fascination has shot to niche trend status this summer as more bakers play with desserts that look like corn, but aren’t. Of course, corn is currently having its moment, even more than in previous summers: After an interview of a child sharing his love of corn went viral on TikTok this month, a remix of that interview has become ubiquitous, having been viewed over 57.5 million times and used in over 320,000 videos. Everyone is making corn content right now, but the pastry chefs making fake corn desserts got there first.
At New York City’s artsy Lysée — which opened in June — pastry chef Eunji Lee crafts corn mousse, sable, and grilled corn cream into a puffy, not-quite-realistic ear. “It’s almost as if she’s building a stuffed doll of knitted corn,” wrote Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton, who notes Lee’s previous work with fake bananas. Instagram baker Tanya Bush of @will.this.make.me.happy recently shared her sweet corn panna cotta in the shape of a tiny corn on the cob — also clearly artificial, but adorable.
Ayako Kurokawa’s Burrow, a Japanese bakery in Brooklyn, has long made “otherworldly cakes and cookies that baffle pastry chefs,” as Bon Appétit wrote in 2018. But this summer, the bakery posted on Instagram that it finally found the right chocolate to perfect its existing corn dessert: Atop layers of sable, frangipane, and white chocolate chantilly is a layer of sweet corn. The composition resembles a real, squared-off corn cob from above, but an ice cream sandwich from the side.
On Instagram, you’ll find cornbread topped with hyper-perfect corn-shaped buttercream; molded-corn chocolate shells filled with corn ice cream; a corn-stuffed wagashi and a loaf of sourdough, both shaped and scored to look like corn with the husk on. The ease of obtaining a corn-shaped mold online means a whole world of faux corn is possible — outside the edible realm, corn candles have been making the rounds for a while, and there’s always the comically large corn stool.
There’s something undeniably fun about food that looks like other food. Sutton touches on this idea in a 2017 review of the restaurant Empellon, which offered a fake avocado dessert. “Stupak is pursuing a grown-up’s version of that childhood wonderment: He’s making diners experience something new and surprising all over again,” he wrote. In the New York Times last summer, Ligaya Mishan wrote about trompe l’oeil as it pertained to cakes, which have been blurring the lines between real and cake for a while: “Maybe nothing is real; maybe everything is a joke. But at least we’re in on it.”
In the now-unavoidable words of TikTok’s “Corn Kid,” it’s corn. But it’s not, and that’s the fun of it.