Friday, February 19, 2010

Arrivederci to Winter: Orange Polenta Cake with Sweet Citrus Glaze . . .

Citrus zest in a cake. Olive oil in a cake. Cornmeal in a cake. An accordion in a cake. Okay, maybe not that last one, but all the others? Yes. Today's the day for an orange polenta cake, drizzled with a sweet citrus glaze. Is it Italian? Oh, you betcha. Does the olive oil make it taste strange? Only in the mysteriously delicious sense of the word.

Though pyramids of vibrant winter oranges are still ubiquitous in every grocery store around here, that will soon change. Do you realize we'll set our clocks forward by an hour in just about two weeks? I can hardly believe it, but I welcome spring's approach with open arms. Winter's bloom has faded. Bring on spring. Bring it on, I say!

I'd been wondering lately if the crocuses might already be nudging the soil aside beneath the snow, on the south side of my house. I investigated that possibility this afternoon, and I'm pleased to report that, sure enough, they've made their debut. In Michigan, crocuses are quite the vernal harbinger. They're hopeful little messengers of warmth to come. To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite poems, one could say they're "looked for like mail." And I have been looking for them.

Now, about this cake . . .

The plan to whip up a bright, citrusy, polenta-and-olive-oil cake had been simmering on my mental back-burner for a while. Never having tried one before, I perused several recipe versions before settling on this one. It comes from the book Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, by pastry chef Gina de Palma (Babbo being Mario Batali's famous restaurant in NYC). A slightly simplified, but almost identical, version of the recipe in the book also appears here, in Babbo's website.

This particular cake's lack of heaviness appealed to me. Some of the polenta cake formulas that I'd read through contained not only a generous portion of olive oil, but also butter. One that sticks in my mind (probably because it would also have stuck in my arteries) contained almost four cups of finely ground almonds in the batter in addition to olive oil, almost a pound of butter, and five eggs. Yikes. Alright, if that's what you're in the mood for, but I had no desire to bake a cake with such heft. Cakes like that emit a resounding thunk when placed on the table. No thunking allowed. All thunking is currently prohibited.

My adapted version of the recipe includes no lemon or lime zest in the batter--just orange zest-- and only orange and lemon juice in the glaze. Aside from those small changes, I did a little rewording of the directions here and there.

I want to mention that I used Meyer lemon juice in the glaze. A cross between a regular lemon and a mandarin orange, the Meyer's color is luminous, like a lemon that's blushing. Its juice is distinctly different, too--sweeter, with perhaps more character. Meyer lemons seem to pop up briefly at this time of year, at least in this neck of the woods, and they're not expensive.

Orange Polenta Cake with Sweet Citrus Glaze

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

1 and 1/2 cups, plus 1 Tbsp., unbleached All Purpose flour
3 oranges
3/4 cup instant or fine polenta (I just used regular Quaker brand cornmeal)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 lemon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease or spray a 9" springform pan. Dust the pan with flour.

Grate all the the zest from the oranges. Set the zest aside for the cake batter, and set the fruit aside to use in the glaze.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, polenta, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium-high speed until they're pale yellow and have tripled in volume (about 3 to 4 minutes). Beat in the reserved orange zest.

Alternate adding in the dry ingredients and the olive oil to the egg mixture. Begin with one third of the dry ingredients, then add half the olive oil. Continue, ending with the dry ingredients. Beat each addition only until it's incorporated. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. The cake is done when it springs back when touched in the center, when the cakes pulls away from the sides of the pan, and when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Note from Jane -- My cake took at least 35 to 40 minutes to bake. I recommend you cover the top of your cake lightly with foil as soon as it gets golden on top, just in case you need to leave it in the oven much longer!)

Cool the cake in the pan on a rack, for 12 to 15 minutes, then carefully remove the sides of the pan. Let the cake finish cooling completely on a rack.

While the cake is cooling, prepare the glaze. Sift 2 cups of confectioners' sugar into a large bowl. Squeeze at least 2 Tbsp. of juice from the orange, and at least 1 Tbsp. of juice from the lemon into a small bowl. Make sure no seeds remain in the juice; strain it if necessary. Add the juices to the large bowl and mix into the sugar with a spoon or a whisk until completely smooth.

If the glaze is too thick, add more of the juices or a few drops of water. Too thin? Add in a bit more of the sugar.

Drizzle the glaze over the cooled cake and allow it to set until it's completely dry. (The sugariness is more subdued, and the citrus flavors are more at the forefront, when the glaze is dry.)

If you want to do so, carefully remove the cake from the bottom of the springform pan and transfer it to a serving plate. Store any leftover cake well covered.

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