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Love Is Complicated; Polenta Cake Is Not

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I'll admit that the name "amor polenta" (love + cornmeal) made me want to bake this cake before I had ever tasted it. It's a simple cake, perfect to have with an espresso or caffe latte for a traditional Italian breakfast, or with a glass of wine for a snack. The origin of its unusual name has long been forgotten, but it is fitting for someone like me, who has a love for all things polenta, especially in baked goods.

Photo by Emiko Davies

Known in its area of origin (northern Lombardy) as dolce varese, this ancient country cake is made with a trinity of "flours" that makes it both rustic and delicate at the same time. There's the fine ground polenta, some regular wheat flour, and finely ground almond meal (or hazelnut meal, which adds depth and a nuttier flavor). Some recipes even call for potato starch in place of the wheat flour, which gives it a lightness, and is a good option for anyone who needs to keep this cake gluten-free.

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Photo by Emiko Davies

There are many things to love about Polenta in a cake: its remarkable way of soaking up the other flavors around it, its deep golden color, and most of all, its crumb—that al dente bite. You could describe it as a grittiness that gives the cake its unique texture.

Photo by Emiko Davies

In Italy, you'll always see this cake cooked in a half-cylindrical ridged tin, which is what makes it instantly recognizable as amor polenta. Without one of these special tins, you can use a regular loaf pan, or any sized pan, really. I love this recipe so much that over the years, I've made it in every cake tin I own, from round (maybe with some poached and quartered fruit pushed into the top) to muffins (with a bit of added lemon zest). I suppose you could say, then, that it is no longer amor polenta at all, but simply an amor polenta–inspired cake—which needn’t be a bad thing, when it's all for love.

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Amor Polenta (Italian Polenta Cake)

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Serves 8
  • 3/4 cup (100 grams) fine cornmeal (polenta)
  • 2/3 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2/3 cup (60 grams) almond meal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 grams) softened butter, plus more for greasing
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
  • 1 splash of rum or Strega, optional
  • powdered sugar, for serving
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Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, Lombardy, cake, breakfast, polenta, almonds