Not pretty but perfect: Lemon polenta cake

It all started a few weeks ago at the farmers’ market. There was a new stall there. It had no sign, no name. Just two ladies doing a roaring business at one large table groaning with cakes. Beetroot cake, coffee and walnut cake, chocolate cake, plum cake, cupcakes – I could go on.

The cake that particularly caught my eye, though, was one of the simplest. It was a plain lemon polenta cake with a drizzle icing (for all you non-Brits out there, polenta is not the creamy Italian cornmeal dish, but rather what Brits call cornmeal in its raw form). The cake instantly reminded me of something very similar that I ate one afternoon at Books for Cooks a couple of months back and thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed. Out of nowhere, a kind of instant, freakish obsession gripped me – I was going to make my own version of this cake and I was going to perfect it, dammit!

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I really have no idea where this determination came from. I do not have the tested ’til perfect patience of America’s Test Kitchen; I don’t tend to undertake side by side by side comparisons of three different recipes in one afternoon, as Julia Child recounts doing in her memoir I’m reading. But I had taken this cake to heart.

This type of cake, made with polenta, ground almonds and lemons or oranges, is quite popular in England. It’s actually a traditional Italian recipe (the ladies at the River Cafe do a well-known version) but you see it a lot in this country. So to me, it’s a quintessentially English cake, subtle and sophisticated, to have with a cuppa and a good book in the afternoon.

I wanted to get it just right. I read various recipes, studied chefs’ and bloggers’ interpretations, mixed and matched ingredients, and in the end I made three attempts at this cake in three weeks, with my trusty band of coworkers acting as judge and jury. Except the jury doesn’t always agree. Specimen 1 was very moist but too oily, we all concurred. Jo said the cake also lacked lemon punch. Specimen 2 was slightly too dry, but Jo said the flavours were perfect. Except then Michaela piped up that the icing was too lemony, too intense. And someone else liked the drier texture. Hmm, you clearly can’t please all the people all the time. So for Specimen 3, I made some final adjustments to the texture according to my own desires, and went with the flavour levels that I knew I would like best… And I called it a resounding triumph. Moist, dense, crumbly, with three different hits of lemon and orange, from the cake, the syrup and the icing, I LOVE this cake.

I know it isn’t the most visually appealing thing I’ve ever featured on this blog. (First I ran out of icing sugar, so I couldn’t make quite as much as icing as I’d normally like to give opaque, white coverage. Then I iced the cake in its tin and during the night the icing dripped down the sides.) Hey, it’s not perfect. But appearances aside, to me this cake is practically perfect.

Citrus, polenta and almond drizzle cake

225 g unsalted butter
225 g sugar
225 g ground almonds
3 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
zest and juice of 2 lemons and 1 small orange
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
150 g cornmeal (polenta)

zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange
100 g sugar

200 g icing sugar, sifted
enough lemon juice, orange, juice or water to make a thick icing

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. Grease an 8-inch round cake tin, either springform or with a removable bottom, and line the bottom with a parchment paper round. Grease the parchment. Note: You can also use a 9-inch tin; adjust the baking time accordingly.

In a small bowl, whisk together the polenta, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Fold in the ground almonds. With the mixer on low, beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, zests and juices.

Now working by hand, add the polenta mixture to the batter and fold it in lightly; don’t overwork the batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for between 1 hour 15 minutes and 1 hour 30 minutes, until the top springs back slightly when pressed and a knife inserted in the cake comes out clean with a slightly oily residue on it. If the top of the cake is becoming too brown at any point, cover it with foil or parchment while it continues to bake. Cool to lukewarm in its tin before unmoulding.

To make the syrup: Once the cake is out of the oven, place a saucepan over medium high heat and add the sugar, juice and zest. Bring to a boil, turn down to a vigorous simmer and cook until the mixture has reduced to a thick syrup. Poke the still-warm cake all over with the tines of a fork and, using a pastry brush, brush the syrup all over the top of the cake.

To make the icing: Once the cake is completely cool, in a small bowl mix together the icing sugar with enough juice or water to make a thick, spreadable icing (lemon juice will give you a tart icing, water will give a sweet icing, and orange juice will give something in the middle). Start with a tablespoon of liquid and incorporate all the liquid before adding more – you don’t want it to get too runny. Pour the icing on top of the cake and, with a knife, spread to the edges of the cake.