I hope that many of you can identify with this feeling: last weekend, I woke up and felt an overwhelming need to bake a cake. I didn't want an overly sweet, icing-ed cake but rather something I could eat plenty of without either feeling sick or a bit too guilty. In my Marcella Hazan Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I hit upon a polenta cake crammed with dried fruits and nuts that sounded just the ticket. There wasn't much fat or sugar in it so it was a nice cake to make after the indulgences of Christmas, and the dried fruits made me feel it had a touch of the fruitcake to it (without having some of the other horrible dried citrus rinds in there). Marcella stated that the cake was a Venetian specialty, made during the hey-day of Venice's trading prowess and was studded with exotic specialties acquired from trade with the Middle East.
Mr A&N approved the recipe, although with only 1/2 cup of sugar for the whole cake he was a bit concerned that the cake wouldn't quell his over-active sweet tooth. Bless him and his concerns. I agreed to make a pomegranate syrup to drizzle over the cake to bridge the gap between his tastes and what was in the recipe; the fennel, figs, and pine nuts in the cake already made me think of middle eastern flavors and I thought the pomegranate would continue that theme (plus, it needed eating).
Without any levening agents, the cake was going to stay fairly flat. When it came out of the oven, Mr A&N's hopes were even lower than before it went in, and he implored me to pour even more of the syrup over the cake. It seemed cruel, in his thinking, for me to tell him I'd be baking a cake and then turn out a flat, un-sweetened disc flavored with things as odd as fennel seeds and olive oil. Almost as if I had promised him chocolate and then offered up a piece of fruit.
The surprise was that we both loved the cake, and the only thing we would have adjusted was to have it in its natural state without the syrup. The texture was the same wonderful slight grainy and crunchiness of anything made with corn meal, but with even more moistness than normal. The pine nuts softened and sweetned a bit, and the dried fruits were a nice touch without being overwhelming. The biggest surprise, mainly because I was so skeptical about them, were the fennel seeds; they infused the whole cake with a gentle aniseed flavor that tied all the other ingredients together. The cake was thoroughly wonderful and Mr A&N was already trying to schedule another batch of it before the first was finished. Rest assured, my dear, we'll both be eating this again soon.
Polenta Shortcake with Raisins, Dried Figs, and Pine Nuts
from Marcella Hazan
- 500 ml / 16 oz water
- 140 g / 5 oz coarse cornmeal
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil
- 125 g / 4 1/2 oz caster sugar
- 50 g / 2 oz pine nutes
- 50 g / 2 oz seedless raisins (preferable muscat)
- 115 g / 4 oz dried figs, cut into 1/4 pieces
- 2 Tbs butter
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbs fennel seeds
- 115 g / 4 oz plain flour
- Pre-heat oven to 200 C / 400 F
- Bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and pour in the cornmeal in a thin stream, letting it sift through your clenched fist while constantly stirring with your other hand.
- When all the cornmeal is in, add salt and olive oil.
- Continue to stir for another 15 seconds until the mixture thickens slightly and pulls away from the sides. At this point, remove from the heat.
- Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg, and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly.
- Add the flour and mix well to form a smooth, uniform batter.
- Smear a 9 inch round tin with butter and dust with flour, and pour the batter into it, using a spatula to smooth it off.
- Bake on the upper shelf of the oven for 45 - 50 minutes.
- When the cake is out and while it's still warm, loosen the sides of the cake from the tin by using a knife. Turn the cake out onto a plate, and then flip into other-side-up onto another plate.
- Serve when cake is completely cool.