I work at a little big time food store called BKLYN Larder, and I’ve written for the small blog we keep going. Check out the original, or read my ramblings repeated below. If you live nearby, we’re churning out blood orange polenta cakes at the moment, so stop on in already!
I’m still new to New York, a decisive flaw that can be read in my excitement every time I ride the subway and in the frustration I express when my mail is surprisingly difficult to track down. That said, I’m not nearly so keen on exploring the thrilling potential of public transportation at 6am when I head off to a morning shift at BKLYN Larder. What makes the trip worth the taking lies in a particular blend of coffee and conversation that brews before opening the doors. This and, among the rest of the jewels the store has to offer, the fact that we’ve got a pastry kitchen that’s already warming up the shop as I brace myself against the morning chill.
Cue pastry chefs Amelia, Meg, and Caitlin. The first two ladies are working on the morning I arrive to shoot the team in action. I smell buttermilk biscuits, scones, muffins, gougères, and doughnuts in every corner of the store. Try working at a place like this with a sweet tooth like mine; I feel like a martyr every time I bypass a caramel square for a helping of kale. A few of my favorite sweets, the pistachio cake and almond cake, make an early appearance in the kitchen. Amelia brushes egg wash on the crostata. Meg preps the scones. Share with me my struggles.
While the sanctum of kitchen recipes prohibits my publishing the make and model details of our beloved pastries, I can describe for you the quaint history of our sweets, my personal attachment to one particular pastry, and a few tasting suggestions. Welcome the star of today’s show, the polenta cake.
Born in November of 2013 in the pastry kitchen of the Larder, the polenta cake gave purpose to a fresh cranberry relish that still needed a home. The warm cornmeal delicacy, kin to the sweetest of pie custards thanks to its cranberry, lime, or lemon curd, as well as classed with savory after-dinner treats given its malty polenta batter, stands out among our more traditional treats. Closer to cornbread than traditionally prepared polenta, this cake does a fine job of maintaining a “rustic” sweetness as opposed to a sweetness predicated on fresh baked fruits or powdered sugar dusted almonds. I use the quotes around rustic in reference to a recent article describing our pistachio cake, whose similarly toned-down sweetness won accolades from Tasting Table’s cake-gurus, but the term makes sense. When we compile a list of traditional cornmeal dishes, at least in the States, we’re drawing on recipes from the first colonial villages, from frontier days, from the depression era, from the Deep South and the rural north – put simply, from impoverished people and times. Even the names we associate with cornmeal products sound rustic – grits, grit cakes, cornbread, hushpuppies, porridge, fried mush, spoonbread – and yet I hardly mean to imply that cornmeal produces as poor a meal as its status as an international staple grain might suggest. Quite the contrary. Bessie Murphy, writing pre-1920, hit the nail on the head when she penned her book “Cornmeal for Breakfast, Supper, Dinner”; it’s one of the most versatile of ground grains and easily one of the most rich in both culture and flavor.
We’re most familiar with breakfast options in the States, where we commonly find it given the porridge treatment, with butters, creams, and sugars, or otherwise cooked down with cheeses, salts, potatoes, and meats. As grits or polenta, it’s served with anything from red peppers and shrimp to smoked sausage and pulled pork. Oven-baked cornbreads can range from the ultra-sweet muffins my mother used to make to the full-kernel and cheddar cornmeal biscuits they bake with such perfection in Savannah. In Europe, cornmeal was similarly used to produce that gruel that everyone imagines prisoners eating in the medieval ages, but plated with cuttlefish, baked plums, porcini mushrooms, or even (er, don’t look up these ones if you’ve a sensitive eye) small songbirds and frog stew, polenta can be quite the delicacy in nations like Italy and Croatia. I grew up on my great-grandmother’s specialty – fried mush. Strips of polenta fried on a griddle and served with a lot of butter and a small dose of sugar? That one comes straight from the poverty of the early 1930’s, and yet my brother and I couldn’t get enough of it, even when we had our fancy frozen waffles and dad’s omelets as alternatives. In Austria, children eat a similarly sweet polenta dish, only dipped in café au lait. Hm.
So this is all to say cornmeal can arrive in an incredibly diverse collection of really fantastic dishes. Why even bother with another cornmeal-based product from Brooklyn?
Ours is rather simple, and it’s likely been done before. But what you’re missing out on if you’ve not given this cake much thought is a subtlety of texture you won’t find in a cupcake or a muffin. That perfect amount of lemon curd, or that rare raspberry, is juxtaposed delicately against a crisp, malty edge, dusted with only enough powdered sugar to make the bread glow. The soft center that, when still warm from the oven, falls apart as if it’s been training a lifetime to offer the perfect bite, expresses a re-envisioning of cornmeal in our kitchen so delightful you simply cannot pass it up.
I suggest sitting down to cup of tea and our polenta cake (I pair our molasses ginger cookie with hot coffee). Make it sweet, iced, and mild on a summer day or hot and black on a chillier fall morning. Bellocq’s Earl Grey with blue cornflower, which you can also find on our shelves, really works magic as a pairing. I’m tempted to try warm, mulled cider or wine once winter comes along, because there’s something about the sweet heat of a full-bodied drink that renders this simple baked good a rival to any English shortbread or delicate coffee cake out there. Take your time enjoying its hidden complexities, especially as it’s not overly sweet. In the same way you wait for the lavender in our cupcakes and the anise in our scones, wait for the savory warmth of cornmeal and the familiarity of a grittier texture in the cake. Push that same savory profile and coarseness against the melting, cloying tang of the custard. It’s subtle, but phenomenal. Yet, for all its internal battles between the sweet and the savory, our polenta cake leaves no trace of salt or sour on your palate once you’ve (unfortunately) finished the treat. Intersperse the bitterness of a black tea throughout, and you’ll be as golden as the cake itself.
It’s rustic – there’s no doubt about its simplicity and lack of serious luster – but it’s a small kind of perfection. Let me know if you enjoy it as much as I do. It even served as my birthday cake this year, the first one I enjoyed in New York, and I’m serious about my cheesecakes and pies. Here’s to warm polenta cake and seasonal fillings as fall quickly brushes up against us!