Friday, May 6, 2016

Lemon, Polenta, and Olive Oil Cake

Last year, I made Dorie Greenspan's Simple Almond Cake for the first time. I chose to make it for several reasons: number one, I'm a sucker for cake and if it's plain and simple, then I'm really all over it, and number two, the recipe is naturally gluten- and dairy-free. While I don't have any food allergies or intolerances, I'm always appreciative of gluten- and dairy-free desserts that don't call for obscure ingredients, because my mom does have to watch what she eats. Dorie's cake is made with just almonds, sugar, eggs, and a touch of vanilla, and it's incredible. It's become a household favorite, and it never fails to make an appearance on the dessert table at family gatherings and holidays. I've made it so many times now, that I've actually grown a bit restless by it. I love it, but I don't really want to make it again and again anymore, you know?

So this year, I set out to find a new gluten and dairy-free dessert that my mom and I would love enough to make over and over again–at least until next year!–and I think I found it. I came across a recipe for a Lemon Polenta Cake from the lovely Nigella Lawson, and the second I saw that it was made with just almonds and polenta, I knew it was almost perfect. She uses butter in her recipe, and while my mom does ok with dairy in baked goods, I really wanted to make her something that was completely delicious and also had no chance of causing any unwanted reactions. I decided to experiment and made the recipe with olive oil instead of butter. If you've never baked with olive oil before (I agree, it sounds a little strange at first!), I definitely recommend it.  Olive oil has a wonderful fruity taste to it that complements baked treats so nicely, and even better, it keeps everything you bake moist for days. And that was exactly what I wanted in this cake recipe. I wanted it to be the type of cake my mom could place on her kitchen counter and periodically come back to and snack on over the course of a few days, without the cake becoming dry in the process.

The cake comes together effortlessly. It's a matter of simply whisking together the sugar and olive oil until they're a smooth, homogenous mixture, and then stirring in the almond, polenta (you could even use cornmeal) with the eggs. A good helping of lemon zest gets stirred in, and the cake is baked. The batter isn't totally smooth, because the texture of the almonds and polenta comes through, but I thought it was quite nice. A note about baking- this cake really should be made in a springform pan. When I first made it, I couldn't find mine (and in fact, I still have no clue where it is), so I made it in a 10-inch round cake pan instead. I greased it as best as I could, lined it with a parchment circle, and then crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. And while the cake did come out easily (for the most part), flipping it and transferring it to the cake platter was a bit of a pain. The cake is pretty delicate, so if you have a springform pan, use it! While the cake bakes, a simple lemon syrup is boiled together and then brushed onto the cake while it's still warm. The glaze adds a hint of sweetness and brightness, and also helps keep the cake as moist as possible. 

I loved the way this cake came out. It was perfectly moist, had a delicate flavor, and a slightly coarse texture–almost like a blend between cornbread and cake. The fruity flavor of the olive oil comes through just slightly, and it did an amazing job at keeping the cake from drying out. The cake was as good on days 2 and 3 as it was on day 1, maybe even better! What I loved most about the cake is that it's completely gluten- and dairy-free. I haven't made the cake for my mom yet, but I'm planning on making it for her this weekend for Mother's Day...hopefully it'll become one of her new favorite desserts! 

Lemon Polenta and Olive Oil Cake
Recipe adapted slightly from Nigella Lawson


For the Cake

150 mL olive oil
200 grams granulated sugar
200 grams ground almonds
100 grams fine polenta (or cornmeal)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
Zest of 2 lemons (reserve juice)

For the Lemon Syrup

Juice of 2 lemons
125 grams confectioner’s sugar 


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Lightly brush a 9-inch or 10-inch springform pan with olive oil and line with parchment paper. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together the almonds, polenta, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil and granulated sugar until well combined. Alternate stirring the almond mixture and eggs into the olive oil and sugar mixture, beginning and ending with the almond mixture. Stir in the lemon zest. 

Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin and bake until the edges of the cake begin to shrink away from the pan and the top is lightly golden brown, about 42 minutes (a cake tester should come out mostly clean). Place the cake pan on a wire rack to cool. 

While the cake is baking, prepare the syrup. Combine the lemon juice and confectioner’s sugar in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Boil the mixture for a few minutes; once all of the sugar has dissolved in the juice, the syrup is ready. 

Run an offset spatula along the edges of the cake pan to ensure the cake is not stuck to the pan. Gently prick the top of the warm cake with a toothpick all over, then brush a generous amount of syrup all over the top of the warm cake. Allow the cake to cool completely before releasing the sides of the springform pan. Enjoy!

Makes 1 9-inch or 10-inch cake


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