We had friends over for dinner on Saturday, dinner and game night. Menu planning for dinner parties is always my job, while Ben's is to vacuum and reach pans in high-up cupboards while I point imperiously from several feet below. Seems fair enough, the division of labor, especially because figuring out what to make for dinner rarely feels like a chore to me. It's rather fun to curl up on the couch in the early morning, surrounded by my clippings and papers and books, and cobble together a meal.
This Saturday, though, the day just got away with me. At 4:30 pm I still didn't know what on earth to make. And my guests were arriving in three short hours. I had to choose a few dishes, go shopping, and cook. Ben was nowhere to be found and a slight cloud of panic fogged my glasses. What was I thinking, with my nonchalance and my sudden creative inspiration that had me writing a short story at 2:00 in the afternoon instead of menu-planning, like a proper hostess? I wanted to stamp my foot.
Flicking through my clippings like a bank teller gone wild, I came across a recipe for polenta cake, meant to be served with roasted cherries, that came from an LA Times article published a few years back. Polenta, of course, is just a fancy word for cornmeal, and as I scanned the ingredient list quickly, I realized I already had everything in the pantry to make it. In fact, you probably have everything for this cake in your pantry, too. Therein lies this cake's genius, I would say.
It's just the thing for a last-minute dinner party, because not only do you most likely not have to make an extra trip to the grocery store, but it dirties just one bowl and bakes in less than half an hour. Because it's relatively small, it cools off quickly, too. No hot cake for dessert!
The batter is rather stiff and seems far too little for the pan. I did my best to spread it out, but it didn't reach the edges. At this point, my guests were 20 minutes from arriving and I hadn't showered yet, so to say that I was frantic would be somewhat understating the truth. I might have yelled at the tart pan or at the batter, I can't quite recall. Finally, because I realized that I could not will that batter to the edges without losing some very important self-respect, I put the pan in the oven and left the kitchen. Because it's that kind of a recipe, one that will save you a pinch, it worked out just fine. See? Browned and lovely and agreeably spread out. I can't believe I doubted it.
Now, Kimberly Sklar tells you serve this with roasted cherries when they're in season. The link above has that recipe for you to bookmark when the summer rolls around. I, and this is partially why I chose the recipe, had a jar of cherries in syrup that my mother put up last summer in Italy and that had been gathering dust in my cupboard ever since. Easy peasy! We sliced that cake into dainty slivers, each guest got to top their slice with a spoonful of cherries (sweet, tart, tiny, heavenly - sei bravissima, mammina!) and dessert was rescued.
The cake is rustic and not-too-sweet-but-just-right - a homey, countrified cake that you can't help but feel affection for. It's got an adorably crunchy cap and a barely coarse crumb and is a shining example of the pleasures of plainness. The cake definitely needs the moisture and tang from the saucy fruit, but if you don't have a jar of homemade Italian cherries in syrup lying about, you could just as well stew some frozen blueberries or blackberries with a bit of sugar and some lemon peel and spoon that vibrant compote over each slice.
Is this the best cake ever? No, but that's not the point. It's a problem-solver, a pinch-hitter, and just the kind of recipe every cook should have on hand, just in case. You never know.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon for pan
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fine to medium grind cornmeal plus 2 teaspoons for dusting pan
1/2 cup brown sugar, not packed
2 eggs, room temperature
3 egg yolks, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons granulated sugar for dusting
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch removable bottom tart pan; dust with 2 teaspoons cornmeal.
2. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light in color and fluffy, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Scrape the bowl and add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the almond extract.
3. Sift the flour, remaining corn meal, baking powder and salt together and fold into the mixture.
4. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the sugar evenly on top. Bake for 20 to 24 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Serve with fruit compote.