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?
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
- 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!