Polenta imparts warming golden hues, toothsome bite and a nutty foil to a burst of citrus in this Italian lemon cake. (Serve with lashings of lemon curd ... )
As a Scot, I have little compunction in spooning on lemon curd and cream, ennobling the pudding mightily ...
Growing up in Scotland, it was always a good day when Mum announced she was making Scotch broth or lentil soup. These nourished and warmed my family and created a lasting fondness for beans and grains.
It took coming south to London from Dundee as a young cook to encounter the many other varieties from France, Italy and Spain, all of which I have enjoyed cooking and eating. Puy or Castelluccio lentils, and cannellini, borlotti or flageolet beans ... wonderful ingredients that often keep an inquisitive cook occupied, learning their lore and how to cook them.
Among all these is also polenta, or cornmeal, which I have grown to like very much. I have in the past succumbed to the instant option, but generally with regret: the bouncing blob once cooked does little to whet the appetite. True polenta – real ground corn – is cooked not unlike porridge, in water over a slow heat.
I love polenta from the Principato di Lucedio. Within the walls of a very old Cistercian monastery, the corn is dried before being coarsely ground by stones, retaining the husk for bite. I have enjoyed this nutty, light polenta under many savoury guises: enriched with cheese and butter, heaped with ragu, or cooked, then set and grilled. Best of all, though, it bakes beautifully. The resulting biscuits and cakes are notable – particularly this recipe, which is a very fine cake, rich in corn, almonds and lemon. It is rare in Italy to serve cream or custards with puddings, but as a Scot, I have little compunction in spooning on lemon curd and cream, ennobling the pudding mightily.
Polenta cake, lemon curd and cream
450g unsalted butter, softened 200g caster sugar
5 eggs, beaten, at room temperature 450g whole marcona almonds, ground 225g polenta flour
A pinch of salt
1½ tsp baking powder
Finely grated zest of 5 unwaxed lemons Juice of 2 lemons
A bowl of jersey cream, to serve
For the curd Juice of 6 lemons 175g caster sugar 150g unsalted butter 5 eggs
1 Warm the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and line a 26cm cake tin (with a removable base, preferably) with baking parchment. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and lightened.
2 Slowly add the eggs to the sugar and butter mix, allowing the cake batter to thoroughly combine as you go.
3 Fold in the ground almonds, polenta flour, salt and baking powder, then the lemon zest and juice. Mix well.
4 Decant the batter into the cake tin. Put in the oven for 45 minutes, then insert a skewer to see if the cake is baked. Cool on a wire rack.
5 Put all the lemon curd ingredients in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Turn the heat up gently. Stir all the while as the butter melts and everything combines. Stir gently and frequently for 20-25 minutes, or until thick. Should the curd be on the thin side after this time, cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Cool.
6 To serve, decant the cooled curd into a pretty bowl, the cream into another, lift up the cake, sit upon a handsome dish and serve.