OK gang, I’ve got a real goodie for ya’all today – I figured I needed a goodie, to mark my return to the world of baking blogs, if not food in general. Sorry about the diversion.
We all get on kicks, and one of mine -of late- has been polenta cake. I have been having a minor fascination with it. and I’ve discovered a special one, a Burnt Butter Polenta Cake to be specific, from a well respected pastry chef, Caitlin Kelly, from Charleston, S.C. And surprise, I’m not going to change a thing about the recipe, as is my usual wont – but I will add several key pieces of info to the process, as Ms. Kelly provides us with such an abbreviated procedure that a home cook will likely encounter “issues” unless given a few hints – my adaption will be to add those hints.
If you don’t know, polenta cake is of Italian heritage, and is cornmeal based. As such it is raised several notches above a simple corn-cake, which it would be if it had evolved from, say, a Southern tradition – but it is, in truth, simply a rich, sweet cornbread cake of the highest order. Even the name is a bit misleading, since here in the U.S., we tend only to have one type of polenta -a rather course grind of corn- but in Italy, there are apparently many grinds, some of which are very fine – and it is a fine grind of polenta which is intended for Italian polenta cake. That’s good for us, since American corn meal is a finer grind of corn than is our American grind of polenta – and so, if you try this one, DO NOT use an American grind of polenta, but American corn meal is fine.
Polenta cake is a shortcake, and therefore lends itself to be used as a base for summer fruit desserts, as we did recently in our Strawberry/Blueberry Shortcake. Shortcakes should, in my opinion, be low in sweetness, to allow for sugared fruits to be used as topping – and other polenta cakes I’ve baked have been low sugar varieties – but this one is not, as you’ll see from the list of ingredients, and that’s part of its charm, since the ample amount of sweetness in it allows the use of unsweetened fruit, and even unsweetened whipped cream with just a hint of almond extract or a teaspoon or two of bourbon or rum, if so desired. This switch will give your summer desserts a fresh face that is quite appealing and interesting.
If I may, allow me to add an observation here about celebrity chefs -or evolving celebrity chefs, as in Ms. Kelly’s case- and their recipes. One must ask, Why would a professional chef share his/her trade secrets? In an admittedly cynical response, I would say to foster their exposure. And if you are willing to agree with that, I would add that it’s interesting to note the various ways a celebrity chef will both share a recipe and yet shield some its secrets at the same time. Someone like Thomas Keller does this by overwhelming the poor home cook with such detail and complexity that eventually the cook throws up their hands in frustration and says, “Let’s just go to the restaurant.” I’m convinced that Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook” is really intended to be a advertisement for the restaurant.
Ms. Kelly, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach – she provides the recipe, but with such procedural brevity, that most home cooks would surely encounter problems in an attempt to duplicate the same splendid dessert they had experienced in her restaurant – the result is the same, exposure, some good vibes, and eventually frustration leads to a decision to renew that wonderful initial experience by simply going back to the restaurant.
Sorry for the obvious cynicism, but you know what they say – “Just because you know you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you anyway!”. I love it.
OK, enough of that silliness – here’s the recipe along with my suggested adjustments – I will not change the ingredients at all, and I will post her recipe verbatim, and add my comments afterward.
10 oz. Sugar
7 oz. Egg Whites (six or seven large eggs)
3 oz. AP Flour
3 oz, Fine Polenta (or use American cornmeal)
10 oz. Butter
Preheat oven to 350
Cook butter over medium heat until it starts to brown.
In a large mixing bowl combine sugar and egg whites with a whisk.
Add flour and polenta to the egg/sugar mix
Slowly add the hot butter into the rest of the batter
Bake in individual greased pans (cupcake pans work well) until golden brown about 15 minutes
OK, now for my comments:
I loved this cake and preparation – it’s not a plain cake, rather a rich, elegant one that will get you Ooos and Ahhs from those you serve this to. Yet it’s simple to put together – there is no creaming of the butter and sugar, there is no whipping the egg whites until they hold peaks – this baby goes together as neatly and easily as any cake I know! I think you’ll love it too.
Here are the “cautions” – As I note above, if you have a U.S. made cornmeal (not cornbread mix), that will be fine. Or, if you have access to an Italian fine grind polenta, that of course will be even better – but DO NOT use a U.S. made polenta, which will be a course grind and will make the cake too gritty.
When you mix the egg whites and sugar, I suggest you do so on a stand mixer with the whip – you want to make sure that the sugar gets dissolved and well incorporated into the egg whites. and if you use a whisk for that, you’ll be working for awhile. I let mine go quite long on the mixer, certainly longer than Ms. Kelly suggests, and it gets somewhat stiff, but never like it would w/o the sugar in there. BTW, do you remember Marshmallow Fluff (do they still make that stuff? I guess so.)? Well, you just made it – neat stuff.
Re the burned butter, this is easy to make – heat a saucepan or skillet until quite hot – put the butter in it, and watch it while it browns (with this much butter, it could foam over the top of your pan) – stir it while watching to avoid the hot spots in your pan. I left mine in until it was well browned, although Ms. Kelly suggests only bringing it to the place where it is starting to brown – I wanted a strong burnt butter taste – however, I would guess you can overdo that and make “black” butter! I’m not sure you’d want that. BTW, you want all the foam to subside before you’re done, that’s your clue that all the liquids are out of your butter now.
When you’re ready to put the batter into a pan or muffin tin, do yourself a big favor and grease “and flour” whatever you’re using – this batter is super sticky, and grease alone is not going to do it. You can use a variety of pans – a tart pan with a removable bottom will work well (although the fluted edges may be a problem) – better yet, a spring-form pan that will make removal easier – but an ordinary cake pan will also work. But if you use a muffin tin, make sure that you do not fill the cups more than halfway, lest they rise up over the top of the pan, which will make it impossible for you to slide a knife blade around the edge to ease them out. Yes, it’s amazing that even w/o baking powder, this batter has no trouble rising well.
As you can see from the pic above, I topped the shortcakes with some chopped pecans and course sugar – but that was not totally successful, since the consistency of the batter allowed the topping to sink down into the middle of the cake – I suspect that this made the resulting shortcake more dense than it should have been. Although the taste was wonderful, I would not do this again.
This is a super-rich and sweet shortcake that is perfect foil for unsweetened fruit, maybe even unsweetened whipped cream too. As I’ve suggested above, it’s unique enough that your most jaded dinner guests will be impressed. I love it in its bare-naked state as well – in fact, the number of uses and variations to which this cake adapts are endless.
Have fun with it, and Enjoy.