Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Nonna Genia's polenta cookies, hailing from Piemonte.
Any cookie that's traditionally served with sparkling wine sparks my interest -- and not only sparkling wine, but also accompanying a serve of creamy, sweet, custardy zabaione -- oh, this is one sophisticated cookie.
In reality, this cookie (known as biscotti di meliga), hailing from Piedmont in Italy's north, was actually born out of tough times. The price of wheat flour had gone up so bakers began substituting the cheaper polenta for a portion of the wheat flour. It makes for a wonderfully short, delicate biscuit with good crunch and a golden glow, thanks to the polenta.
I have a favorite cookbook that I turn to for anything to do with traditional Piemontese cuisine. She's called Nonna Genia. I've tried her agnolotti, her glorious hazelnut and espresso cake, her truffle fondue, her torta di pasta frolla (jam tart) and taken her advice on amaretti-stuffed, baked peaches. She's never failed me. It's not actually written by a nonna but by Beppe Lodi, in what is essentially a collection of the most traditional recipes of the Langhe area of Piedmont -- recipes that would otherwise be lost with a generation of nonne that never needed to write recipes down.
This recipe is inspired by Nonna Genia's. It's so very simple to make, there's really nothing to it. Usually the soft cookie batter is placed in a piping bag and piped with a star-shaped tip into rings -- the most traditional way to make these biscotti. But when the dough has rested in the fridge and hardened, you can roll it out and use a cookie cutter as I have done here. Note that the traditional recipe calls for a very fine polenta, one that is not usually used for making cooked polenta but is specifically produced for baking. If you can't find that, go for the finest polenta you can find, perhaps even instant polenta.
There are a few ways the Piemontesi enjoy these cookies. The most wonderful (in my opinion) is with freshly whipped up zabaione, and a glass of moscato d'Asti or dolcetto for dessert. And like most biscotti, they go nicely with a homemade espresso or a cup of tea.
Polenta Cookies (Biscotti di Meliga)
Makes about 32 cookies
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup extra fine polenta
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup butter
2 medium egg yolks (if using large eggs, one will do)
Zest of one lemon
Photos by Emiko Davies