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Posts Tagged ‘cornmeal’

During Tom’s and my recent trip to Rome, our hotel’s former broad, open breakfast buffet was displayed within glass cases and dispensed by gloved staff members. (Thanks, covid.) Among the generous array of breads, cakes, pastries, fruits, meats, and cheeses were slices of what looked like pound cake, which the servers encouraged us to have: “amor di polenta – very good – polenta cake.” I’d never heard of it, but we tried it, and indeed it was very good: a sweet, light, golden cornbread, unlike any I’d tasted before. It became a breakfast staple of our stay in Rome.

Back home, I wanted to learn to make this hitherto unknown treat, so I googled the name. Egad: Amor polenta recipes were all over the Web, in both Italian and English. Well! Time to make its acquaintance.
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I discovered that amor polenta is a specialty of Varese, a province in northern Lombardy. It’s much like a pound cake, made with only flour, butter, sugar, and egg: no other liquid. The intriguing flavor comes from a mixture of white flour, almond flour, and fine cornmeal.

I downloaded a few recipes for comparison and settled on this one to take as my model. Being in Italian, it lists ingredients in grams, so I began by measuring out the three flours on my kitchen scale: 100 grams (3.5 oz) of cornmeal, 80 grams (2.8 oz) of white flour, and 70 grams (2.5 oz) of almond flour.
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Then I took out my heavy-duty mixer – an appliance that the recipe calls a planetaria. Not a name I’d known. I imagine it must be because the beaters simultaneously rotate and orbit, like planets. I love the idea of having a planetarium in my kitchen! But I digress.

In the machine I whomped 100 grams (3½ oz) of softened butter with 120 grams (4.2 oz) of sugar, added two eggs, one at a time, and beat it all into a smooth cream. At this point, the recipe asked for the seeds of a vanilla bean to be stirred in. Instead, I used ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract.
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Next, I had to mix in the dry ingredients. The recipe insisted on their being added in sequence, with the mixer running: first, the cornmeal; second, the white flour; third, the almond flour. I can’t think why; maybe it’s something folkloric. But I did as prescribed. And ended with ½ teaspoon of baking powder. Finally, the recipe wanted 10 grams of rum stirred in. We don’t keep rum in the house, so I used a teaspoon of grappa.
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There is a special baking pan for amor polenta, which gives the traditional domed, ribbed slices visible in many of the google images above. Since I didn’t have one, I scraped my very dense batter into a buttered 10″x4″ loaf pan.
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The loaf baked for 45 minutes at 350° and developed a typical pound cake crack down the middle. (You wouldn’t see that if you used the amor polenta pan, since the loaf is turned out onto the plate upside down.) It was attractively golden and fragrant, but it hadn’t risen very high. (The recipe hadn’t indicated a size for the pan, so I guess mine was a little too large.)
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It had the fine taste and texture we remembered from Rome, confirming its seductive aroma. Lovely for breakfast, and no doubt will be excellent too with afternoon tea or coffee. The recipe suggested dusting the top with powdered sugar, but it was already sweet enough for us. I might even try a small adjustment next time: a slightly larger proportion of polenta flour and a small reduction in the sugar. No great matter: Even with no further tinkering, amor polenta could easily become a breakfast staple for us here at home.

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Beloved Spouse and I will be in Rome next week. It’s just a short trip, to revisit the places we love in that city. Many of those places will be restaurants, because minchillidining is one of the things we most love about Rome. But in addition to our long-time favorites, we try to make some new discoveries each time we go there. Toward that end, I recently bought a copy of Elizabeth Minchilli’s book Eating Rome. Subtitled “Living the Good Life in the Eternal City,” it isn’t exactly a cookbook – more a culinary guide to Rome’s eating customs and eating places – but it does include many recipes.

I tried one of the very first ones in the book: Amor Polenta, which the author calls her favorite breakfast cake. The odd name seems to mean Cornmeal Love, and apparently it’s a very traditional bakery item throughout Italy. It’s a sort of cornmeal-flavored pound cake, though in this version, at least, there’s not a preponderance of cornmeal in it.

There are basically only two steps to the recipe. First you beat together softened butter, eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Second, you stir in a mixture of all-purpose flour, corn flour, ground almonds, and baking powder. The resulting batter is to be poured into a loaf pan and baked for 40 minutes. The finished cake gets a coating of powdered sugar.

I had some trouble with the recipe, though. It calls for one cup of ground almonds, which Minchilli says equals 170 grams. I weighed my almonds (170 g = 6 oz) before grinding them, and that quantity gave me two cups’ worth of fluffy particles. I decided to use them all, thinking maybe a finer grind would have compressed them into a single cup. That may have been a bad choice, because when I combined all the ingredients, I got something more like a dough than a batter.

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It certainly wouldn’t pour into the pan. And when baked, it made a very dense bread. We first tasted my loaf as a dessert, and it really needed the simple fruit compote (plums, oranges, and bananas) I served alongside to lighten it.

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However, over the next few days, the bread turned out to be nice enough when toasted for breakfast. It even seemed to improve as time went on. Nut breads always seem to keep well. Still, I’m a little suspicious of this author, because when I subsequently checked the weight-to-volume conversions she gives for the other dry ingredients (corn flour, all-purpose flour, and sugar), not one of them agreed with the authorities I consulted.

Now, when I get to Rome I’ll have to look for amor polenta in pastry shops, to see if it’s anything like this one that I made.

BTW, since I won’t be at home, there won’t be a new post on this blog for the next two weeks.

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February seems to have more than its share of ugly weather. If it’s not snow or freezing rain or 40 MPH winds, it’s low, gray overcast and bone-chilling damp. When I’m stuck indoors on days like that, my best remedy for cabin fever is to turn on the oven and bake something. This past week, I’ve entertained myself by trying new recipes for breakfast muffins, afternoon tea cake, and dinner bread. Here’s how they worked out.

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Sundowner Yogurt Corn Muffins

A while back, I wrote here about my search for a really good corn muffin recipe and regretted the fact that the best one I’d come up with had turned out rather dry. My friend Jennifer then sent me her recipe. It took me a long time to try it, but now I finally have – and it’s terrific. Much better than the one from Joy of Cooking that I’d been using.

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Jennifer’s recipe is actually for cornbread, baked in a square pan, but it worked just fine for me in muffin cups. It has several differences from the Rombauer version. It uses less cornmeal in proportion to wheat flour. It says to cut cold butter into the dry ingredients rather than stirring in melted butter. It uses a generous amount of yogurt instead of milk, some baking soda instead of all baking powder, and brown sugar rather than white.

I divided the batter over the 12 cups of my big muffin tin, which baked up into fairly small muffins, but delicious ones. (Tom quickly ate two, the first morning.) They were fully corn-flavored and beautifully moist. Next time, I might divide them only among eight cups. Or I might make a bigger batch! They still taste fine after freezing and defrosting for later breakfasts.

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Quick Persimmon Bread

Rummaging in my freezer, I came upon a cup of almost forgotten persimmon puree, left over from the steamed persimmon pudding I’d made for Christmas. Time to use it! None of the persimmon recipes I could find in my cookbooks or online appealed to me, so I thought I’d try using the puree instead of mashed banana in Joy of Cooking‘s recipe for Quick Banana Bread, which I like a lot.

Since quick breads rise from baking powder, not yeast, they’re really more like simple cakes than bread. My persimmon puree behaved well in the mixing and produced an attractive golden brown loaf with a soft, loose crumb. But the fruit flavor was extremely mild – bananas assert themselves much more in this recipe than the persimmons did. And though there was ⅔ cup of sugar in the loaf, it was only lightly sweet.

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I had envisioned the bread as a nice accompaniment to a cup of tea on a cold winter afternoon, but it didn’t have enough character to be interesting that way. Toasted for breakfast a day later, topped with butter and jam, it was a little better, but it shouldn’t have needed all that help. So, all in all, this was a disappointment.

Whole Wheat No-Knead Bread

I make no-knead bread often when I want a small crusty loaf for a family dinner without going through the work of making regular French or Italian bread. Mine is not the famous no-knead bread recipe from the New York Times in 2007, which became a craze. That is very good, but it takes 18 hours of rising and bakes in a searing hot cast iron pot, so it’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing to make. The recipe I use, also written about in the Times a year later, is far easier and quicker and makes a reliable simple loaf.

The loaf also keeps well for a few days – surprising, considering that most breads containing only yeast, flour, salt, and water start going stale the next day. For my mini-version I’ve cut the quantities and tweaked a few techniques. Previously I’ve used all-purpose flour, but this week I thought I’d try it with half whole wheat flour and half bread flour.

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That worked out quite well. The crust was a little crunchier than my all-purpose-flour version, the crumb had the right balance between airiness and chewiness, and the gentle whole-wheaty flavor gave the bread the character of a good Italian peasant loaf. I think I’ll adopt this as my standard version of the no-knead recipe.

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