I’ve sampled two polenta cakes in London over the past few months. The really standout one came from Lily Vanilli Bakery just off Columbia Road. It was a very simple polenta slice topped with black sesame seeds, I think using olive oil rather than butter, which gave it such a gorgeous and distinctive flavour that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since.
Since that heavenly cake, I’ve been keen to attempt my own. The mood really struck me last week, cold and hungry for cake. I dug out my slightly neglected pack of polenta and decided on a buttery version of the cake over olive oil, just to try things out. It seemed to go down really well, and take it from someone who is definitely not a baker (yet, anyway), it was a totally not-a-palaver polenta cake.
you will need:
for the cake
200g unsalted butter at room temperature (plus some for greasing)
200g caster sugar (we always like to use golden for a nicer colour)
200g ground almonds
100g fine polenta (or cornmeal)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
3 large eggs
zest of 2 oranges
for the syrup
juice of 3 oranges
125g caster sugar
5 cardamom pods, crushed
Heat the oven to 180°C / 340°F. (Aga users, use the baking oven if you have)
Dig out a 9inch springform tin, or any size you have really, as polenta cakes still look lovely when they’re quite flat and disc like. Line the bottom with greaseproof paper and grease the sides with some butter.
Keep the butter out to soften and weigh out your ingredients.
You can buy ground almonds easily, but I had a load in the larder so decided to blanch and grind my own almond meal. Very easy, just a bit time consuming and requires a food processor / mini chopper (my weapon of choice). To do this, weigh out 200g of the almonds and boil the kettle. Cover the almonds in a large bowl with boiling water and leave to soak for a good 5 minutes. Drain and fill the bowl with cold water. Stick something very diverting on your nearest device and get going. Took me about half an hour but was really easy, you literally just squeeze the almond out of the skins, which will be loose. I found it weirdly therapeutic, but if this sounds like hell to you then treat yourself to the pre-ground stuff.
Once your almonds are all naked, dry them with some kitchen towel and lay them out somewhere warm to just dry off completely. You’re going to need to grind these in a food processor of some kind, so you don’t want them to be wet or it’ll just smush down and be a nightmare. Once dry, add to a food processor / mini chopper in batches and grind into a slightly grainy meal.
While they’re drying, zest two oranges and squeeze the juice from three. Set aside.
Chop your butter into cubes to make it easier to work with, and once it seems reasonably malleable beat together the sugar and butter in a large bowl with a wooden spoon. You can use a food processor I guess on a mix setting too.
When you’ve combined the butter and sugar and ground your almonds, in a separate bowl you can mix together your gorgeous golden polenta, almonds and baking powder.
Now we can make the cake! Add a third of the butter / sugar mix to the dry ingredients and combine, then add an egg and beat in. Add another third of the butter / sugar, beat, add an egg, beat, and continue to do this until everything’s combined. Add the orange zest last and beat together. Scoop mixture into the tin and even out before popping in the oven for about 40 mins.
Mine was catching slightly after about 30 minutes but still not cooked (a curse often thrown upon me when I bake… I blame the Aga) at which point I put some foil over it and carried on cooking it, actually for a further 15 / 20 minutes. My advice would be to use a skewer to check the cake very carefully – it’s wobbly before it cools, which is normal but you do want the skewer to be clean. Be careful though, I think prodding mine with a knife caused it to sink quite badly!
Take out and allow to cool in it’s tin on a wire rack. Don’t remove from the tin until you’re ready to serve.
This is a sweet cake that doesn’t necessarily need the syrup at all. It does add to it though, and I think is worth doing. To make it, combine the crushed cardamom, orange juice and sugar in a pan on a low heat and allow to thicken and reduce. When ready to serve, prick the cake all over slightly with a skewer and then brush the syrup all over it and take out the tin when ready to serve.
I know this is delicious served up with a dollop of creme fraiche for the rest of the family / friends, but it’s also really good with a spoonful of plain yoghurt to balance out the sweetness. Less than 2 spoonfuls are low lactose and should be tolerated by most of us!
I’m so glad I finally made this cake – it’s such a comforting treat. I can’t wait to make it again!