Maybe a decade ago I had an excellent polenta cake at a party, which had interesting spices and pine nuts and was dense and creamy like a budino. I've been thinking about it again since reading of Nick's experiments. My sister-in-law is visiting, and she keeps kosher, so a non-dairy dessert was in order for dinner tonight. Marcella Hazan's "Essentials" has recipes for polenta cake and olive-oil cake on facing pages, so I decided to combine them. Here's what I made:
1 cup coarse polenta
2 cups water
1/4 t salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup sugar
zest of two Meyer lemons (zest them right into the sugar and stir with a fork)
1 T fennel seeds
1/2 cup pignoli
1/4 cup raisins
1 cup dried figs (I used the Turkish kind that are all squeezed together), chopped coarsely
1 cup flour
Preheat oven to 400. Grease a 9" springform and sprinkle it with dry breadcrumbs.
Soak the fruit in Marsala, not enough to cover, but enough for it all to be absorbed--maybe 1/3 cup--tossing with your hands.
Bring the water to boil with the salt in a small saucepan. Slowly add the polenta, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Add half the oil and stir about a minute, until it's thick and coming away from the pan. Take off the heat and pour into a heatproof bowl. Immediately add the rest of the oil, the zesty sugar, the fennel and the pignoli, then the fruit, stirring. Let the mixture cool a bit (so it won't cook the eggs), then thoroughly stir in the eggs, then the flour. Scrape it into the springform and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake 35 minutes.
The finished cake was about an inch high, with a dry chewy top just like soft polenta gets when it sits. The inside was pretty much as I remembered that cake from long ago, maybe a little heavier. It was a riot of flavor, of course. The fennel and the Marsala fought a bit, but the lemon acted as peacemaker. The figs were really lush, and the pignoli got that soft translucent way they do when they are cooked without pre-toasting. My kid liked it, and the adults had third helpings, even my husband, who usually shows far more restraint.
What will I do differently next time? I want to do something about that top crust. I think it detracted from the smooth unctuousness of the whole. I think I'll bake it in an 8 inch pan, so it's that much thicker. I'll mince the lemon zest instead of using a microplane, so there are more texture punctuations. And maybe I'll play around with less flour/more liquid/more egg, or even a little leavening just to see if it can get a little lighter. But it doesn't need to.
Let me know what you think...