Statistically speaking, you probably know at least one person with an abundant citrus tree in their yard. My neighbours back home have adjourned to Sicily for the month thus having traded their rather humble citrus grove for much zestier pastures! Envy aside, this means their bounty was mine for the taking. And take, I did.
Three generations of my family headed over to their house and, seeing as we forgot to take anyone who was remotely brave enough to climb a ladder, we ended up ravaging the lower branches of what appeared to be a lemon tree. On later inspection it may have been a ‘lemonade’ tree which is utterly disappointing when you go to squeeze it’s decidedly un-lemony juice onto fish but would serve as a fine flavouring for a cake.
Being of Croatian descent – yes, I can literally only go five minutes without bringing this up – we are lovers of that golden grain, polenta. However, I’ve actually never baked with it and my mum laughed when I suggested it. Usually it’s served in firmish, neon yellow clumps and smothered in goulash. (Inland we are most put out by the creamy, soft polenta you might see closer to the Adriatic.) To my mum, the proposition must have sounded like I was planning a mashed potato cake.
But Nigella Lawson, who will come to occupy as regular a place on here as she does in my heart, did it so I must defer to the other Domestic Goddess. The one who isn’t my mum. She has a recipe for a lemon polenta cake that’s described as half British, half Italian. Containing only polenta, almond meal, eggs, sugar, butter and lemon zest, it is, quite accidentally on my part, gluten free. Once baked, a lemon syrup is made from, unsurprisingly, icing sugar and lemon juice. By piercing the cake all over like some flat, yellow, expressionless voodoo doll, you ensure maximum syrup absorption.
If you’ve never made a polenta cake before, this one is incredibly easy. It’s light and fresh with the combination of zest and syrupy juice giving you a double citrus hit. I think it would go well with a dollop of double cream or marscarpone. Though really, what wouldn’t?
I toyed with the concept of proclaiming polenta the poor understudy to flour in this particular cake. At first bite there’s definitely a grittiness that makes you wonder if you’ve done something wrong. (Probably the reason my people eat polenta with goulash and not in dessert.) But, a few pieces in – tut tut – I realise that the bite is what helps the crumb hold all of that delightful syrup in place. A flour based cake would have turned to mush under these conditions, where the polenta has held firm.
So if you’ve been consumed with free citrus greed and picked off a few more lemons than you can handle, try your hand at this Lemon Polenta Cake. I suspect it would work equally well with almost any citrus you happen to have purloined.
(For the cake)
- 200 grams soft unsalted butter (plus some for greasing)
- 200 grams caster sugar
- 200 grams ground almonds
- 100 grams fine polenta
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 3 large eggs
- zest of 2 lemons (save juice for syrup)
(For the syrup)
- juice of 2 lemons
- 125 grams icing sugar
- Line the base of a 23cm / 9inch springform cake tin with baking parchment and grease its sides lightly with butter.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/gas mark 4/ 350°F.
- Beat the butter and sugar till pale and whipped, either by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon, or using a freestanding mixer.
- Mix together the almonds, polenta and baking powder, and beat some of this into the butter-sugar mixture, followed by 1 egg, then alternate dry ingredients and eggs, beating all the while.
- Finally, beat in the lemon zest and pour, spoon or scrape the mixture into your prepared tin and bake in the oven for about 40 minutes.
- It may seem wibbly but, if the cake is cooked, a cake tester should come out cleanish and, most significantly, the edges of the cake will have begun to shrink away from the sides of the tin. remove from the oven to a wire cooling rack, but leave in its tin.
- Make the syrup by boiling together the lemon juice and icing sugar in a smallish saucepan.
- Once the icing sugar’s dissolved into the juice, you’re done.
- Prick the top of the cake all over with a cake tester (a skewer would be too destructive), pour the warm syrup over the cake, and leave to cool before taking it out of its tin.
Recipe courtesy of Nigella Lawson’s Website.