A love for polenta cake
The first thing that attracted me to this cake recipe before I had ever even tasted it was its rather romantic name, Amor Polenta. It’s an unusual name whose origins have long been forgotten but it is perfectly fitting for someone partial to polenta, or should I say, with a love for polenta. There’s something about polenta that I adore in a cake – the way it soaks up the other flavours around it, that golden colour, and most of all, that bite, that grittiness that gives the cake crumb its unique texture.
Whenever I see polenta cake or even read about it (especially when it’s as lyrical as Rachel Roddy’s description where you can taste her orange, cardamom, almond and polenta cake through her words, dripping like the hot orange, lemon and honey syrup she pours on top), I simply must have some. I will continue thinking about it for days until I get some. Rachel’s sticky orange polenta cake is still haunting me, particularly after mentioning eating it with a dollop of mascarpone.
Then there’s Valeria Necchio’s rustic strawberry polenta cake, made with a batter featuring good-for-you ingredients such as wholemeal flour and yoghurt. With its wholesome goodness and a top dotted with seeping and sinking dark red strawberries and flecks of slivered almonds, it’s a cake that you can imagine sitting, steaming, on a beautiful country kitchen bench. And on top of that, you could even allow yourself eat it for breakfast. Yes, cake for breakfast.
Amor Polenta, or as it’s known in its area of origin in northern Lombardy, Dolce Varese, is a simple cake made with a trinity of ‘flours’ that makes it both rustic and delicate at the same time. Add to the polenta some soft flour (some recipes even call for potato starch, keeping it light and fluffy but also, as it turns out, gluten free) and ground almonds and you have a compact, but crumbly, moist cake – a little like a pound cake – but with that wonderful little bit of bite from the polenta.
Traditionally this cake is baked in a half-cylindrical ridged tin, which is what makes it instantly recognisable as Amor Polenta. Not having one one of these special tins, I used a round tin, and since it no longer resembled Amor Polenta, I also pushed some freshly poached pears into the batter before baking. I suppose you could say this isn’t Amor Polenta at all but simply a polenta and pear cake inspired by it, which needn’t be a bad thing. If you’d like to make the real thing, all you need is that lovely ridged tin and forget the pears – done.
Traditional Amor Polenta doesn’t need any rising agents, just the fluffiness of the freshly whipped eggs. Perhaps somewhere along the way, people lost their patience for whipping eggs for as long as they did in older recipes (such as this one for Torta Margherita from 1891 that only has three ingredients) and the baking powder just guarantees your cake will rise without too much elbow grease. When did we become so lazy?
Poached pear and polenta cake
Based on the recipe for Amor Polenta, this is adapted from a recipe by Stefano de Pieri of Stefano’s in Mildura in Victoria’s north west. He suggests serving it with glazed, poached pears on the side, which I think is a bit fancy for this humble cake normally served simply dusted with icing sugar alongside an espresso or tea.
- 40 gr potato starch (or 80 gr plain flour)
- 60 gr of almond meal
- 85 gr fine polenta
- 1 tsp baking powder
- A pinch of salt
- 100 gr caster sugar
- 125 gr butter, room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 whole pears, cored, sliced into quarters and poached until just cooked
- Icing sugar
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the yolks and eggs one at a time, beating well until fluffy. Carefully fold the dry ingredients into the eggs and pour the batter into a greased cake tin (I used a 26cm spring form tin, greased and lined with baking paper because it’s a terribly old, rusty tin). Arrange the poached pear slices on top, pushing them into the batter ever so slightly. Bake at 180 Cº or until the cake rises slightly around the pears and turns golden brown, about 30 minutes. Once cool,dust with icing sugar and serve in thick wedges.