If "mamaliga" (mama-LEE-gah) is an unfamiliar dish to you, you're sure to know it by another of its names: polenta.
Mamaliga is the Romanian version of this staple and has been called the country's national dish. While the recipe itself is not revolutionary, the history behind mamaliga is fascinating. Cooked in a round-bottomed kettle called a "ceaun," the cornmeal porridge would be turned out into the center of the peasantry's wooden farm tables, where it hardened as it cooled, holding its rounded shape. Portions would be sliced off using a piece of string held taut, and pieces would be topped with butter and sour cream, or with cascaval cheese, a sheep's milk cheese similar to pecorino. After each meal the matriarch would scrub the table clean, and it's said that many a Romanian table is concave and shiny in the center, a testament to the daily tradition of eating mamaliga.
When making mamaliga, examine the piece served to you; any cracks that appear on the top of your portion indicate an unexpected journey lies ahead. —Nostrovia_ca
yellow cornmeal, medium grind
freshly crack black pepper to taste
butter and sour cream (or yogurt, to feel more virtuous) for serving
Bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add salt and butter.
Begin stirring the water in one direction, sprinkling about 1/3 cup of the cornmeal into the depression that forms in the center. Once the water returns to the boil, pour in the rest of the cornmeal, stirring continuously to prevent clumps from forming. Turn heat to low and continue stirring until cornmeal begins to thicken.
Cover the pot and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 to 15 minutes. When it is done, the mamaliga will pull away from the sides of the pot. (A tip from Nicolae Klepper, author of Taste of Romania: Wet the handle of a wooden spoon and insert it into the center of the mixture, spinning it a few times. If it comes out clean, the mamaliga is done.)
Invert the pan onto a wooden cutting board and carefully lift it away — the mamaliga should hold its shape, spreading out slightly. Slice into six wedges and top with butter and sour cream. (Note that as it cools, the mamaliga will harden.)