Last night I ended my class on Lasagne Verdi al Forno with a quick demonstration of one of my favorite cakes. If you regularly bake cakes, you will see that this one is so easy to make that it really doesn't need to be "taught" in a class setting. Because it is so simple, I have never included it as part of a class—even though I love it. But its ease of preparation made it a perfect sweet ending to this information-packed class. After two hours of the details of handmade pasta, the steps involved in the preparation of a classic ragù Bolognese and then the building of the lasagne, something simple was in order.
Like the lasagne (a classic dish from Emilia-Romagna), Amor Polenta hails from northern Italy (from Lombardy). The same cornmeal that finds its way into the polenta of northern Italy is the main player in this cake, adding an unusual and delicate crunch. On its home turf, this cake is baked in a special ridged, half-cylindrical pan. Here in the states it is most typically made in a small loaf pan. According to Carol Field the cake is eaten in Italy as a dessert—with cream poured over—but that it is probably more suited to American tastes as an accompaniment to afternoon tea or coffee. That may be, but I thought it was a perfect dessert—with berries and whipped mascarpone—for a class devoted to northern Italian food.
The original recipe for the cake I make is from a Culinary Institute of America cookbook and was given to me several years ago by my friend Molly. At the time, Molly—who is a talented and skilled baker—had been assisting with my classes for some time and had acquired a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that push my culinary buttons. She described the Amor Polenta to me one day while at work, wanting to know if I had ever heard of it. I had not. She emailed me the recipe with a short note that said "Here it is...I think you will really like it." I did. I have been making it ever since.
Over the years I have altered the balance of ingredients slightly (a little more butter...a little less flour) to achieve a cake that I find to be a bit more tender and moist. I have no idea if this takes away from the authenticity of the cake or not, but I feel my alterations are in keeping with the character of this dense and fine-crumbed little cake which is essentially just a cornmeal pound cake. This particular recipe also includes finely ground almonds (or almond flour), but I have seen versions without the almonds. Almond-less versions generally include some Amaretto, Maraschino liqueur or almond extract.
I have also changed the mixing method somewhat. The original version calls for separating eggs and beating egg whites...which forces you to use (and wash) an extra bowl. I mix this cake up using the same method I use for my pistachio cake (beating the nut flour in before the eggs to achieve and maintain maximum aeration). The resulting cake is dense like a pound cake, but because it has so little wheat flour it is very tender...almost crumbly (but not so crumbly that it doesn't slice well).
This cake makes—as Carol Field says—a fine accompaniment to tea or coffee. Whether served with an afternoon coffee break or for dessert, I particularly like to serve this cake with fresh berries. Cornmeal-based cakes and berries seem to have a special affinity for one another. When they are in season, fresh figs are a wonderful accompaniment, too (especially when combined with raspberries). But since in my house all but the sweetest cakes eventually make their way to the breakfast table, recently I have been enjoying Amor Polenta lightly toasted—alongside yogurt and fresh fruit—for breakfast.
(Sweet Cornmeal Cake from Varese)
85 g. stone ground cornmeal (2/3 c.)
60 g. cake flour (1/2 c. plus 1 T.)
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
150 g. unsalted butter (2/3 c.)
175 g. granulated sugar (3/4 cup plus 2 T.)
90 g. blanched almonds, lightly toasted and finely ground (3/4 c. slivered almonds)—or use 90 g. lightly toasted almond meal (1 cup less 1 T.)—see note
1 t. vanilla
3 large eggs, room temperature
Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 6 cup loaf pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper. Butter the parchment. Dust the pan with cornmeal and set aside.
Combine the cornmeal, cake flour, salt and baking powder in a small bowl and whisk to distribute the salt and baking powder. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar continue to beat until fluffy and white, about 5 minutes on medium-high speed.
Turning the speed down to low, add the vanilla and almonds. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture is again fluffy—another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating again on medium-high speed after each addition until the batter returns to fluffiness and scraping down the sides before each next addition.
Fold in the dry ingredients. Turn into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when it is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a thin spatula around the pan and unmold immediately onto a rack to cool completely. Serve the cake with whipped cream or mascarpone & fresh berries. Serves 6 to 8.
Note: To toast nuts or nut flour, spread in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 350° oven until golden and fragrant—about five minutes. Cool before using. Watch carefully when toasting almond flour—it will darken and burn quickly.
1 c. Heavy Cream
4 T. sugar
1 8-oz. container Mascarpone (about 1 cup)
1/4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1 t. vanilla
Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on a low speed until smooth and beginning to thicken. Increase the speed and whip until soft peaks form.