Every now and then along comes a recipe that you may have glanced at, skimmed through, perhaps even mentally bookmarked, but between one thing and another maybe you’ve never found the time, the inspiration or the energy to actually make it. Maybe you’ve even forgotten about it. And then one day you remember it, you’re in the mood for it or something else spurs you on. You go out and look for the ingredients or realise you have them on hand and before long, you’re in the midst of making it, dirtying hands, bowls and kitchen counter as you go. Then finally there’s that telling moment, that moment of truth, where you bite into that creation that almost never was and you think, where have you been all my life?
Well this, for me, is one of those recipes. It’s from Artusi‘s 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, and is one that easily escapes the eye, firstly because in a book of 790 recipes, there’s a lot of competition. Secondly, Artusi has given it the rather anonymous name of paste di farina gialla II, or yellow flour pastries II. The vague title of the recipe (‘yellow flour’ is rather sweet though), I think, is its downfall as it makes it too easy to skip over without reading the recipe first properly. It also comes after another polenta cookie recipe (you guessed it, paste di farina gialla I) that calls for lard and a touch of aniseed, not everyone’s current favourite cookie ingredients; ingredients that may not encourage you to read the second. And so, this recipe sat there, under my very eyes for about two years.
Then it just so happened that I was searching for polenta recipes, particularly baked goods (more on this soon but it’s also no secret that I have a profound love of polenta cakes). Only Artusi doesn’t call this wonderful ingredient polenta, but rather ‘farina gialla‘ (‘yellow flour’) in the titles or ‘farina di granturco‘ in the list of ingredients, which is tricky if one does not know that he means polenta. In English, the name of this slightly coarse ‘flour’ – or more a ‘meal’, really – made of stone ground (if you get a good one) dried corn, is just as confusing. In Australia, we call it polenta, in the US it’s often also known as cornmeal, it’s just not to be mistaken with corn flour, which is an entirely different product, a powdery, white wheat starch (also called corn starch in many British-influenced countries or maizena in Italian) used in cooking as a thickener.
The word ‘polenta’ itself is Italian and describes not only the ingredient but the cooked dish as well. In fact, one of the most beloved forms of polenta – softly cooked polenta like a thick, creamy porridge to cradle some heavenly wintry stew or ragu – is what gives this ingredient its name in the first place. It comes from the Latin, pulmentum, for gruel or porridge, a most common dish of ancient Rome. Ah, but the Ancient Romans did not even have corn, you may be thinking. Rightly so. Their ‘polenta’ was often made of millet, chestnut flour (in parts of Tuscany this is still a tradition, albeit a dying one), farro or chickpea flour. It was not until the introduction of corn from the Americas to the Italian peninsula in the High Renaissance of the sixteenth century that cornmeal mostly took the place of these other starches, becoming a basic staple of la cucina povera, particularly in northern Italy, where it has long played an important part of peasant food traditions.
Throughout his cookbook, Artusi uses the word polenta only to refer to the ‘porridge’ (as in ‘a polenta of…’) and commonly uses the name ‘farina di granturco‘ for polenta, the ingredient instead. It literally translates to ‘Turkish grain flour’, and although the corn didn’t come from Turkey, it’s synonomous with somewhere far-flung and exotic, like, say, Latin America. Another thought is that it’s a translation gone wrong (in Italian Turkey the country, Turchia, its people, turchi, and turkeys, the birds, tacchini, are completely different words) for Turkey wheat, a name used to describe a now nearly extinct American heirloom wheat variety and corn. The connection between language and food will never cease to fascinate me.
Although polenta is most commonly cooked with liquid (water, stock or even milk) and can be then eaten as is or cooled, cut into squares and fried or grilled, it lends itself wonderfully to sweets and also as a “flour” for baking. Naturally gluten-free and with a much coarser texture than regular wheat flour (even the fine ground polenta), it has a good crumb and bite to it that sits somewhere near al dente. Baked in cookies like this recipe, it gives a delightful crunch.
The real clincher for me with choosing this recipe, however, was the unusual addition of dried elderflower, which give a lovely, decidedly floral note to the cookies. Elderflower, known as fiori di sambuco in Italian, is often used fresh, its string of blossoms dipped in batter and deep fried like zucchini flowers (squash blossoms) or made into delicious syrups and cordials. Dried elderflower, much like dried camomile, is used as an herbal infusion and can be found in health food stores or specialty tea shops. This tea is said to aid numerous ailments, from hay fever to asthma and even wards of coughs, colds and flu, as well as being an excellent detox. Need any more incentive to eat an entire batch of these cookies, particularly when feeling a little under the weather?
Artusi’s Polenta and Elderflower cookies, recipe no. 591
Paste di Farina Gialla II, ricetta no. 591
- 200 gr fine ground polenta (cornmeal)
- 100 gr butter, softened
- 80 gr fine white sugar (Artusi calls for icing sugar or confectioner’s sugar)
- 10 gr of dried elderflower (about a fistful)
- 2 egg yolks
Make a dough by combining the butter and sugar together until creamy, then adding the yolks, and finally the dried ingredients. If you find the dough is too crumbly or hard, add a little bit of water until you have a dough you can work with (remember this has no gluten in it so it will always be a little crumblier than a cookie dough made with regular wheat flour). Roll the dough out on a floured surface to 1cm thickness and with a small cookie cutter, cut out rounds and place on a cookie sheet with plenty of space between each cookie – these expand quite a bit when they cook. Bake at about 180ºC until golden and crunchy. Artusi mentions these cookies are to be served with tea; I think of course it’s only natural to serve them with an elderflower tea.