Polenta . part vi . Marcella’s shortcake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

As freely translated from Italian. . .

” Today I’m in the mood for confessing the unconfessable  When I was younger (and as I write these words I mean that some time has passed since then), I completely ignored the Italian kitchen. When I began living abroad, I focused on the art, literature and culinary history of the countries I resided in, and rightly so in my opinion. As a side note to this thought, let me explain that I not only detest any form of colonialism, I also dislike the term denoted by the word “expat”. 

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and this is where my confession comes in! With age comes knowledge and a fair bit of nostalgia for one’s native country. It might come to you as a surprise that one of the first cookbooks I bought was “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”, published by Marcella Hazan in 1992. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Marcella is a spiritual master of “Nigella-like” proportions from another generation. 

To give a sense of place to the magnificent M.H., allow me to sketch the broad strokes of her career. Born in 1924 in Cesnatico, Italy, Marcella’s cookbooks established traditional Italian cooking in the United States as well as Great Britain. Winner of numerous prestigious culinary awards in her lifetime, gossip goes that her husband Victor Hazan (born in Italy and originating from the Big Apple) was actually the translator of her books from Italian to English.  Who were both considered quite the couple!

Now back to the story of my first cookbook. . . The polenta recipe I have chosen as my third contribution to this wintry polenta project, is from Marcella’s  “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”This authoritative volume was printed without a single photograph and yet it is truly a vision of beauty. Despite the fact that it oozes of Italian food mastery, Marcella wrote a surprisingly short chapter on desserts. 

Tucked away in the book’s last 50 pages, I found an utterly comforting, delicious, irresistibly buttery and incredibly easy dessert. According to Marcella, this shortcake was recommended to her by the famous culinary critic and chef James Beard, who found himself fascinated by it during his stay in Venice. The kind of cake capable of creating such rapture is studded with dried figs, sultana raisins and pine nuts . . . ingredients that remind one that the glorious city of Venezia was once the gateway to the Orient.

Ingredients . for 6-8 persons . for a cake tin 22 cm in diameter 

  • 140 grams coarse cornmeal for polenta 
  • 500 ml water 
  • 120 grams fine wheat flour
  • 25 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a pinch of sea salt 
  • 125 grams granulated sugar
  • 50 grams pine nuts 
  • 50 grams sultana raisins
  • 115 grams dried figs . sliced thin
  • 30 grams unsalted butter 
  • 5 grams unsalted butter for the cake tin 
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 tablespoons of crushed fennel seeds 

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, fan on. Smear the cake tin in with butter. Sprinkle it lightly in with flour, then shake out any excess left in the tin. Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Turn down the heat to medium and pour the cornmeal in a thin stream, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Once the cornmeal is incorporated, allow it to thicken for about 15 seconds, then remove it from the heat. 

Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly to combine, then add the flour and stir into a batter. Pour the batter into the cake tin, leveling the top with a spatula. Place the cake tin on the upper shelf of the oven and bake it 45-50 minutes, or until golden and baked in the middle. 

Remove the shortcake from the oven. While still warm, loosen its sides with a knife and turn it over on a plate. Allow the cake to cool before serving. Marcella recommends serving it with whipped cream!

This shortcakes keeps well if covered 3-4 days. 

Sincerely, Biagio .

author of gloggtheblog.com ”

Notes 

Fennel seeds are quite intense in flavor. The amount recommended in the original recipe can be decreased or simply replaced with a milder aromatic like lemon zest.

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