Surprisingly Sweet PolentaKnown in the United States primarily as a warm and savory comfort dish, polenta is also a common ingredient in Italian desserts. Simona Carini shares her memories of Italy — and recipes for sweet cakes made from the ground cornmeal.
A native of Italy, Simona moved to California 13 years ago to live with her (now) husband. At the time she was not a cook and not interested in becoming one. Now, she enjoys both developing recipes and writing about food.
The word "polenta" conjures up hot, hearty food for a cold winter day. Soft and creamy, or grilled to delicate crispness, this cornmeal mixture can warm both body and soul.
As good as it is for a first course or side dish, polenta also wears a lighter spring hat.
While not as common in the United States, a dessert called amor polenta is common in pastry shops throughout Italy, where I was born and lived until I was 30. This and other polenta-based cakes make lovely spring desserts.
Amor polenta is a soft cake made with fine polenta called fioretto, for which stone-ground cornmeal is a perfectly acceptable substitute. The cornmeal and finely ground almonds provide body, but don't take away the cake's buttery texture.
The nuanced flavor of almonds is intensified by the addition of amaretto, Italian liqueur with a characteristic bittersweet almond taste. While it is baking, amor polenta sends out a delightful aroma, a promise of the pleasure it will provide once it has cooled and has been cut into slices.
In pastry shop windows, amor polenta is easily recognized by its characteristic half-cylindrical shape. Because I bake mine in a loaf pan, it doesn't look quite as pretty, but it tastes just as heavenly.
I think one of the prerogatives of an expatriate — I have lived in the United States for 13 years — is the ability to take liberties with traditional dishes of her homeland without causing an uproar. After hearing recently about a lavender cake, I went to work on a lavender amor polenta.
Had I not been looking for them, I might never have noticed the jar of dried lavender flowers in the spice section of the grocery store. And a food market is where you should look for this ingredient: You want edible lavender, not flowers treated with perfume.
I decided to omit the amaretto in my new take on amor polenta, but I kept all the other ingredients. A tablespoon of the lavender flowers turned out to be just the right balance for the almond flavor — and the amor polenta alla lavanda was born.
Sbrisolona, another Italian polenta dessert, offers a good contrast to the soft amor polenta. Sbriciolarsi is Italian for "to crumble," and unlike amor polenta, this cake has no softness, only crunchy crumbles.
Amor polenta has, among its ingredients, beaten egg whites and baking powder, which produce a soft cake. Sbrisolona, which has neither, is a thin torte that emphasizes the crunchiness of both ground almonds and polenta.
This crumbly cake comes from Mantua, a beautiful city in northern Italy. Sbrisolona was originally a dessert for the poor, made with polenta and lard. It was later adopted by Mantuan nobles and refined by their pastry cooks. They replaced some of the polenta with wheat flour and the lard with butter, then added sugar and almonds.
While amor polenta is easy to slice, sbrisolona will crumble everywhere under the pressure of a blade. It is best to break it with your hands, the same tools you should use to mix the ingredients. You can think of this polenta cake as a spring break of sorts.
Using an electric beater, beat the 3 egg whites until they are stiff but not dry.
In a separate bowl, beat the butter with the vanilla sugar (or regular sugar), then fold in the 5 egg yolks and the amaretto.
Sift the flour with baking powder and salt.
Using a spatula, incorporate the almonds, the flour sifted with baking powder and salt, vanilla extract (if not using vanilla sugar) and the cornmeal. Mix until all ingredients are well blended.
Fold in the egg whites, moving the spatula delicately to incorporate them while maintaining the airiness they contribute to the batter.
Pour the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan lined with parchment paper.
Bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool before slicing.
Amor Polenta Alla Lavanda
Use the list of ingredients from amor polenta with the following changes: substitute milk for the amaretto, use regular sugar (omitting the vanilla extract) and add 1 tablespoon of dried lavender flowers.
Follow the instructions for amor polenta, adding milk instead of amaretto.
Toss the dried lavender flowers with the almonds when they are halfway ground and add them together to the batter.
Traditionally, this is a rather large cake. I prefer to make a smaller, thinner one. However, to honor the tradition, I am giving in square brackets the quantities for the larger version. A dollop of vanilla ice cream is a good accompaniment for this cake, as it provides a nice contrast of texture.
Makes 8  servings
3/4 [1 1/2 ] cup pastry flour
2/3 [1 1/3 ] cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/2  cup vanilla sugar (recipe below), or 1/2  cup sugar and 1/2  teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons [1 and 1/2 stick] butter, softened and cut into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
On a clean surface, create a mound with all the dry ingredients. Make a small hollow space in the center and place the egg yolk[s] there. With your fingertips, mix the yolk[s] and the portion of dry ingredients that immediately surrounds it until the yolk is no longer running. The dry ingredients at the periphery of the mound will remain dry.
With your hands, crumble the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is homogeneous, though not bound together.
Gather the crumbles with your hands and place them in an 8-inch [10-inch] spring-form pan. The cake will be about 1/2-inch [1-inch] thick.
Shake the pan lightly to even out the crumbles and avoid empty spaces. Do not press the crumbles or the cake will become hard.
Cook for about 25  minutes, watching carefully. This cake is thin and therefore very sensitive. When a toothpick comes out clean and the edge is golden brown, remove from oven. (The toothpick test is more useful with the thicker cake, the color test with the thinner one.)
Let cool without removing from the pan.
Break with your hands to make portions.
Making vanilla sugar is a great way to extend the life of a used vanilla bean. Even though the seeds may have been scraped off, there is still plenty of flavor left.
If starting with a whole vanilla bean, cut it in half and then split it lengthwise.
Place the pieces of vanilla bean into an airtight container with 2 cups of granulated sugar.
Let sit for at least a week.
Use in recipes that call for sugar and vanilla extract.
Preparing the Almonds
If starting with almonds that are still in their skins, bring a small pan of water to a boil and add the nuts. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
Turn off the heat, drain the almonds completely, then slip their skins off.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Use a paper towel to dry the almonds, then spread them on a baking pan and toast them for 3 to 5 minutes, until only a shade darker in color.
Remove the baking pan from the oven and let the almonds cool down before grinding them in a food processor to the desired level of fineness.