Amor polenta (polenta love), while unheard of in America, is one of the best tea cakes in Italian bakeries. Amor Polenta, or as it’s known in its area of origin in northern Lombardy, Dolce Varese, is a simple cake made with a trinity of ‘flours’ that makes it both rustic and delicate at the same time. It is considered Cucina Povera. Add to the polenta some soft flour (some recipes even call for potato starch, rice flour, or cornstarch, keeping it light and fluffy but also, as it turns out, gluten free) and ground almonds. It has a rather romantic name, Amor Polenta, which is love. The name comes from the use of golden polenta flour, but not the coarse one used to make the savory polenta porridge, but a refined, finer version called “farina di mais fioretto” or the super refined “farina di mais fumetto”. Stone-ground cornmeal can be substituted.
There are two main versions: one with finely ground almonds and vanilla, and the other version no almond or vanilla, but a bit of eau-de-vie such as maraschino, limoncello, kirish, Grand Marnier, or Amaretto, but both show the particular texture from the cornmeal that is a bit grittier than with just flour. Constructed like a poundcake using the power of eggs to create the texture, Amor Polenta doesn’t need any rising agents, just the fluffiness of the freshly whipped eggs. Modern versions contain baking powder.
Traditionally the cake is baked in a half-cylindrical ridged tin, which is what makes it instantly recognizable as Amor Polenta. Not having one one of these special molds, you can use a round cake pan, a rectangular pan, a rounded mixing bowl to make a dome, a bundt pan, kuglehof mold, even individual bundts.
Bakers can add their own touches, like cardamom, orange, or lemon. The batter is good with some yogurt or sour cream added. It can be a base for a fresh fruit breakfast cake with fresh plums, peaches, pears, even figs and strawberries. Amor polenta can be enjoyed with a cup of afternoon tea, for merenda (the mid-afternoon snack of all Italian children), for breakfast, or as an unpretentious dessert with a dab of whipped cream or mascarpone alongside your espresso. It takes nicely to some poached fruit, a compote, or even citrus sections drizzled with honey. For the Italian palate, its a comfort food; it tastes like home.
This version is made with a package of yellow cake mix and a box of cornbread mix. This is often the cornbread served in restaurants and is much sweeter and lighter than regular homemade cornbread. It is positively addicting.
1 package (18 1/4-ounces) yellow cake mix, such as Duncan Hines Deluxe Yellow Cake
1 package (15-ounces) cornbread mix, such as Krusteaz Honey Cornbread
4 large eggs
1/3 cup light olive oil
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup water
Grease the bottom and sides of one 9-by-13-inch baking pan or spray with a vegetable cooking spray; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350º for a shiny metal pan (325º for a Pyrex glass or dark coated pan).
In a bowl using an electric mixer, combine the dry cake mix and cornbread mix. Add the eggs, sour cream, buttermilk, and water. Beat on low speed to combine, 30 seconds. Increase to medium-high speed and beat 2 minutes, scraping the bowl often. The batter will be smooth and creamy.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan with a spatula. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The top will be dry and be small cracks across the top and springs back when touched lightly with your finger. Cool on a wire rack in the pan at least 30 minutes before cutting into over sized squares. Makes one 9-by-13-inch cake, about 15 servings.
Amor Polenta with Grand Marnier Strawberries and Crème Chantilly
4 pint baskets of ripe strawberries, washed, dried, and hulled
5 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier, or orange juice
8 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
2 pints cold heavy cream
One 9-by-13-inch Amour Polenta cornmeal cake
To prepare the fruit: In a large bowl, crush 1 1/2 pints of the strawberries. Mix in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the orange liqueur and 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar. Slice or halve the remaining berries and add to the crushed berries. Stir and set aside.
To make the Crème Chantilly: In a chilled bowl with an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream with the remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of the orange liqueur until soft peaks form. Cover and chill until serving.
To serve: Split a square of cornmeal cake in half horizontally and layer with the berries, then put some of the whipped cream, the other piece of cake, more berries and some cream on top. Ladle the berries onto the cake; you want some berry liquid to soak into the cake.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.