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.

Polenta . part iv . quince marmalade cake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

As freely translated from Italian. . .

” Many objects of the senses go apparently unnoticed during childhood and adolescence, or so it seems.  Over time, memories play an interesting part on experience, and ingredients of the past take on a different meaning. To tell you the truth, I have had a special relationship with an unassuming fruit, namely the quince. 

My mother adored them! I remember well how she would avidly work in the kitchen with my father to make quince marmalade and the famous Sicilian “cotognata”, a thick sweet paste preserved in decorative shapes. I also remember how my brother and I looked woefully at the seemingly endless supply of both, because honestly we didn’t like either . . . they were perhaps too sweet and sticky for our youthful taste in food.

But time has changed all that. When I happened upon some fresh quince at the market (an unusual sight in Brazil, I assure you), despite their exorbitant price, I had to take some home.  I dedicated my quince acquisition to the making of a polenta cake, adapted from a recipe by Irina Georgescu. This dessert combines two very popular Romanian ingredients. It makes for a beautifully, moist cake which is neither too sweet or too rich. Lina’s recipe is beyond delicious and  I know my mother would love it. Too bad we are so far away from each other in the middle of a pandemic. . . 

Ingredients for the batter . for a cake tin 18cm in diameter 

  • 200 grams of unsalted butter 
  • 150-200 grams of granulated or raw cane sugar
  • 3 large eggs 
  • 200 grams finely ground almonds 
  • 100 grams fine cornmeal for polenta
  • 25 ml rapeseed oil

For the quince marmalade 

  • 1 quince . approximately 400 grams 
  • 200 ml water
  • 75 grams sugar 
  • 50 ml honey

For the syrup

  • The juice of two oranges . approximately 350-400 ml 

Prepare the cake tin by rubbing it generously on all sides and bottom with unsalted butter, or simply cover it with a piece of well-fitting parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius, with the fan on.

To make the marmalade, wash the quince, then peel it and remove the seeds as well as the core. Slice the fruit into cubes. Bring the fruit, water, honey and sugar to a boil in a sauce pan at medium heat. Allow the fruit to simmer until the quince is very soft and the sugars have thickened, about 20 minutes. Smash the fruit with a fork until it looks like coarse apple sauce, then set it aside.

Meanwhile, to make the syrup, simmer the orange juice five minutes in a sauce pan at medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then set aside.Prepare the cake batter as follows.

Toast the almonds, then grind them into a fine powder. Cut the butter into a cubes. In a mixer or a food processor, mix the sugar and butter two-four minutes into a smooth cream. With the machine running, add one egg at a time until they are assimilated. To finish the batter, stir the ground almonds, cornmeal and rapeseed oil until just incorporated into the butter mixture.

Spoon the quince marmalade one the bottom of the cake tin, then pour in the batter. Bake the cake 50-55 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a fork or a cake skewer. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool ten minutes. Tip the cake onto a platter. Warm the orange syrup, then carefully prick holes all around the cake with a skewer. Pour the syrup over the top of the quince marmalade and serve the cake while still warm. If you have any leftovers (which you might not haha), warm the cake in a preheated oven at 150 degrees Celsius for about 5 minutes, before bringing it to the table. 

Sincerely, Biagio .

author of gloggtheblog.com ”

 

Polenta . part iii . “pizza gialla” revisited

Six years have passed since I first wrote a blog about polenta. The time spent writing the original looks  like the pages of a faded diary. The first version of this recipe came about by chance. A friend of mine was intent upon avoiding wheat, but simply could not stop dreaming of pizza.  The thought of a golden, crispy polenta crust, burnt perfectly around the edges by the flames of an open fireplace came immediately to mind.  This is how the idea and the name for “pizza gialla” was born.

It took a while to figure out how to emulate a pizza-like crust with polenta. That being said, the deliciousness of grilled polenta comes very close to the kind of comfort found in the pizza experience. Even though polenta stays soft in the middle, and cannot imitate the chewiness a slow-rise wheat dough can, the finished result is a perfect stand-in to the original.

As part of the polenta project I am engaging in at the moment, I tested my original recipe. A simplified version of the pizza gialla recipe I published in 2014, can be found below.

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Polenta . part i . minestra de farina zala

With winter in full swing, now is the perfect time to bring up the subject of polenta. It is an ingredient that sparks highly conflicting opinions. Many adore it, while others are convinced it is tasteless. That being said, I grew up in the Veneto. In this part of the world, polenta and risotto are not only food staples, they are food icons.

So to those who say polenta is inedible, I can only promise that they must try a bowl made by someone who understands how to make it. To those who love it, I feel a recognizable connection. All opinions aside, as with many foods it is a question of texture. Think of polenta as a soft, silky mash that replaces the potato for example; imagine it as the comforting neutral base to stews and thick, chunky minestrone style soups. I am convinced that like me, you will jump at the chance to have some.

Read the nostalgic recipe below, to learn how to make a creamy, pale yellow soup, known as minestra di farina zala, in Vicentino dialect. I believe it is the perfect starting point in the appreciation of simplicity.

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