Friday, June 24, 2011

Polenta Cake with Lemon Curd and Berries

I love strawberry shortcake.  I think it's just about the perfect dessert for parties and picnics all summer long.  I have been known to bring all the components to parties and let the other guests put together their own shortcakes.  That way the biscuits don't get soggy from the strawberry juices and you don't risk a bunch of slippery biscuit tops slipping off their bottoms and making a mess in your car. 

On one such occasion, I decided to gild the lily a bit and make a tangy lemon curd as an additional topping for the shortcakes I was bringing to a party hosted by my friends, Andy and Kelley.  The shortcakes were a hit and were especially enjoyed by our host Andy.  Years later and he is still talking about those shortcakes with the lemon curd.

It turns out that Andy's lovely wife, Kelley, has a love for a traditional Italian cake made partly with polenta.  Polenta cakes are usually a bit less sweet than other cakes, and they have a subtle crunch that comes from the small amount of polenta (or as we here in the US call it, corn grits).  I happen to love polenta cake as well, so when I was looking for a slightly more sophisticated version of a strawberry shortcake, I thought this cake might make a great pairing with the sweet fruit and tart lemon sauce.  Just like the wonderful marriage of Andy and Kelley (who celebrated their anniversary just recently), this dessert has great balance and is both sweet and subtle.  Cheers to you, my dear friends!

Polenta Cake with Lemon Curd and Berries
For the cake (adapted from Food and Wine):
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup polenta (Bob's red mill makes a good one, you can use coarsely ground corn meal if you can't find the polenta)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup olive oil (don't use a very strongly flavored one)
juice of 1 medium lemon
1 tbs vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
zest of 1 medium lemon

Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees.  Butter and flour a loaf pan and set it aside.  In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is thickened.  It will also appear lighter in color.  This takes about 3 minutes. Mix in the oil, lemon juice, vanilla, and lemon zest until combined.  Gently fold in the flour, polenta, and baking soda until just combined.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes.  A toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out moist, but clean.  Let the cake cool completely on a rack.

For the lemon curd (recipe from The Pie and Pastry Bible, by Rose Levy Berenbaum)
zest of 1 large lemon
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
3 fluid ounces (or 6 tbs) lemon juice, about 2 1/2 large lemons
4 tbs butter, cut into pieces

In a heavy saucepan (without the heat on), beat the egg yolks and sugar until well combined.  Stir in the lemon juice, butter, and lemon zest.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.  Be sure to scrape the corners and sides of the pan, you don't want to get lumps or scramble your eggs. The mixture will thicken and coat the back of a spoon.  Don't let it boil!  You will curdle your curd, which oddly enough, would be a bad thing.
When the lemon curd is done, it will coat the back of a spoon and not drip off.  You should be able to run your finger down the spoon and the two sides should remain separated.
Cool the lemon curd, then put it in a bowl with plastic wrap laid directly on the surface of the curd.  This will prevent a skin from forming.  Refrigerate the lemon curd until thickened and completely cold.

To assemble the dessert, slice the cake into thick slices and spoon the lemon curd over it.  Top it with sliced mixed berries (I add a tablespoon or so of sugar to the berries and let them sit for a few minutes to bring out their juices).  If you're really feeling decadent, you can add a scoop of freshly whipped cream to the top.

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