Orange Polenta Cake


It’s been about four months or so since I last baked this cake, and I found myself craving it again last night, rattling around in the pantry to see if we had any marmalade. (This cake will not be ignored, even at ungodly hours.) Orange-polenta cake is rustic and sophisticated all at once, neither too rich nor too sweet, with an emphatic texture: my personal holy grail for desserts.

The recipe comes from Ottolenghi, a serenely chic series of bakery-restaurants in London with a Mediterranean bent. (I have my eye firmly fixed on Ottolenghi’s equally serene and chic cookbook, waiting patiently for my husband to lift the moratorium he ever-so-gently placed on cookbooks at our house. I’ve maxed out our kitchen shelves. And cupboards.)

The ground almonds and polenta provide a beautiful coarse-grained quality to the crumb, and the cake’s elegant caramel and citrus flavors elevate it from homey and rough-hewn to quietly refined. Orange flower water (a distillation of bitter orange blossoms used in Mediterranean desserts and classic cocktails) offers just a hint of floral perfume. Substitute 1 tsp water and 1 tsp orange juice if you can’t find it easily.

If you’ve never prepared a caramel on the stove before, this recipe is the perfect place to start, with just a small amount of sugar and an addition of butter to keep it pliable. Wear oven mitts and keep some ice water nearby (sugar burns wicked crazy hot, friends) in case of an unlikely splatter. And if the caramel burns or goes wonky on you, simply clean out your pot and try again. (Fill up with water and boil off any sticky caramel residue. Works like a charm, no scrubbing today!) You’ll get the hang of it.

For entertaining, prepare the orange-polenta cake a day ahead (wrap tightly and leave out at room temperature) and glaze it just before serving. It’s a clever addition to any Cal-Med menu, and can be served warm, which only adds to its charms. A slice of leftover cake with a cup of tea makes a very special treat for breakfast.

Okay, two slices, but who’s counting?

parchment baking

Orange Polenta Cake
adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

for caramel layer:

  • 1/2 C superfine granulated sugar (see note)
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 2 navel oranges

for cake:

  • 1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 C superfine sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp orange-flower water, (or 1 tsp water + 1 tsp orange juice)
  • 1/2 C all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 C ground almonds (7 oz)
  • 2/3 C dry quick-cooking polenta

for the glaze:

  • 1/4 C marmalade
  • 1 Tbsp water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9″ cake pan (round or square) and line with parchment.

In a small saucepan, add the sugar and water, scraping up any sugar from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Over medium heat bring to a boil, swirling occasionally and without stirring, so that the caramel colors evenly. Take the caramel to a dark amber, the color of an old penny. Quickly take off the heat and add butter (it will foam up) and stir with a wooden spoon. Put back on medium heat for a few seconds, stirring. Quickly pour caramel into the prepared cake pan, tilting so it coats as evenly as you can get it.

Grate zest from the oranges and reserve. With a paring knife, cut away the peel, including the white pith layer. Cut citrus in 1/4″ slices, crosswise. Arrange on top of the caramel.

Prepare the cake: with the paddle attachment of an electic mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Mix in orange-flower water and reserved zest.

In a medium bowl, add polenta and almond meal. Sift in flour. Add baking soda and salt; whisk to combine. With the mixer on low, add the dry mixture until just combined.

Spread batter over the caramel-orange layer. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean from the center, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan 5 minutes. Invert onto a wire cooling rack or a cake plate. Remove parchment.

For glaze, heat marmalade and 1 Tbsp water until smooth. Brush on top of the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: you can make your own superfine sugar by pulsing granulated sugar in a food processor; be sure to measure after you process, as it will affect the volume.


PS: In other news, voting wraps up tomorrow (9/23, 6 pm PST) for the first round of Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog 2010 (check out my entry profile here to cast a vote for “Readers Choice”; Foodbuzz will ask you to register to participate). I’d like to extend my thanks for all the lovely things you lovely people have said, in print and in person, about this little blog of mine. It’s been very encouraging, and I appreciate it!

About scarpettakate

Scarpetta Dolcetto celebrates simple, seasonal, scratch home cookery.
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30 Responses to Orange Polenta Cake

  1. That is one gorgeous cake…Definitely worth some votes 🙂

  2. This cake looks amazing! I definitely will have to give this one a try. Good luck with Project Food Blog as well!

  3. Incredibly creative! I am in love!

  4. That looks amazing. My hubs would go crazy for it. Agree on the ice water near cooking sugar. Always fun times.

  5. Thanks so much for the notes, gals! I love love LOVE this cake…highly recommend it!

  6. Claudia says:

    Love polenta cakes – the addition of citrusy orange is all the sunshine I need.

  7. Aimee says:

    My mouth is watering. I can’t wait to give this a try. Beautiful and delicious. Is there a better combination?

  8. elizabeth says:

    This is lovely, and something I cannot make because I am very selective with baking…but I do make polenta. So maybe I should break my sweet baking ban to make this? Maybe I should just make this and then test it out on my coworkers as they are the best focus group possible. 🙂

  9. Polenta is awesome in cakes….this cake begs for a tea party!

  10. janelle says:

    this cake sounds DELISH and makes me think of a marmalade I saw recently: citrus marmalade with rosemary…. and polenta? I have to try your cake!!

  11. Père says:

    The Mrs. whipped this up yesterday and it was a hit with Jr. And me!

  12. This cake look so beautiful. I want to make one! My hubby will be a pig in the mud if I can make this orange cake. He LOVES orange cake. Thanks for posting the recipe.

  13. tcmaryf says:

    Love cornmeal cakes. This one looks amazing, I can almost smell it, thnx

  14. tanya says:

    I was wondering if you can use a sub. for the sugar? Possibly agave or honey?

    • hi tanya…my short answer is “sure!” but with a few caveats. you can make a caramel with agave (google it up for ratios) but i’ve not tried it. Honey, agave & maple syrups have unique properties (viscosity, moisture, etc) so it’ll take some trial and error to get your proportions right for the cake portion, but give it a whirl! and you could easily substitute raw or “turbinado” sugar…add it to a food processor to grind the crystals finely (like superfine sugar) so the volume is the same. it’ll just impart a slight molasses or brown sugar flavor, which would be tasty here. good luck…and let me know how your experiments turn out!

  15. aminyc says:

    Absolutely beautiful! Can’t wait to try it!

  16. Nabeela says:

    thats look yummy yummy!!!

  17. Beautiful cake. I smiled when you mentioned the cookbook moratorium–my husband has been hinting the same for sometime. Love the first picture!

  18. Cris says:

    This sure looks good. I thought they were pineaples at first, and now I want to try this recipe, we love polenta cakes around here.

  19. Thank you!!!! I’ve been looking for this recipe like crazy ever since I saw this cake in Ottolenghi!! you have great recipes in your blog!! Congrats!!

  20. The Mom Chef says:

    This just caught my eye because I made one very similar from an old issue of Gourmet magazine. Yours is much more gorgeous though. 🙂

  21. JS says:

    Great recipe, the polenta plus almond meal is such a great texture for a cake. I was looking for a cake to bring to Thanksgiving that used some oranges from my tree. It was a hit! And a lot of fun making caramel, which I hadn’t attempted before.


  22. Stephanie says:

    This is one of the prettiest cakes I’ve seen! And it certainly sounds quite yummy – thanks for sharing.

  23. Pingback: Blood Orange and Olive Oil Cake | The Quinces And The Pea

  24. Anita says:

    Have been googling numerous variations on the Claudia Roden orange almond cake. This looks great. Although I was trying to avoid flour and just add baking powder. However, my question is what is a ‘stick’ of butter. Please tell me the actual weight in grams. Thanks Anita.

    • Hi Anita – a stick of butter (it’s a common American measure, or 4 oz) weighs 113 grams. There’s a link to a metric conversions calculator on my conversions page if you need it!

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