A revelatory experiment

There was just one question on my mind as I wandered the supermarket aisles, clutching little jars of star anise and cinnamon in one hand and a pot of creme fraiche in the other: where the bloody hell do they keep the polenta?

I thought it would be in the same section as the flour – nope. What about the cereal section? Nope. Bread? No. Pasta? No. I even tried Google for help, except my phone’s 4G wasn’t working. Thank you, Vodafone.

It was only when I got home and hopped on the wonderful world of the Internet did I realise my mistake. I had been looking solely for ‘polenta’ when I could have also been searching for ‘cornmeal’.

Experienced foodies out there are most likely scoffing at my amateur discovery but you better believe it was a big revelation for me. That thing on TV that always looks like silky potato mash and has developed a bit of a ‘hipster’ status, that thing that always sounded so fancy and almost mysterious, is actually just humble ol’ cornmeal.

According to The New York Times, ‘polenta’ is the Italian term for cornmeal and comes from an ancient Roman dish of the poorer classes called pulmentum.

More precisely, polenta isn’t such until it’s cooked. Until then, it’s just cornmeal.

When I looked up the recipe of an orange syrup cake that I saw on the latest season of My Kitchen Rules, I was confused as to why it used polenta. That confusion has now dissipated after learning what polenta actually is and trying out the cake for myself.

The orange syrup cake was served with caramelised pineapples, toasted nuts and creme fraiche on the show and there was only one word the judges had for it: “Yum”. Naturally, I had to give it a go.

I halved the recipe used and didn’t bother with the caramelised pineapple and the nuts as my primary focus was trying out the cake.

For the syrup:

  • 247.5g caster sugar
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
  • 1/2 orange, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, juiced

How to:

  1. Heat all the ingredients up in a saucepan over low heat until all the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes until reduced by half
  3. Let cool and pour through a fine sieve into a jug to discard the solids

For the cake:

  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 92.5g unsalted butter, softened
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 75g plain flour
  • 27.5g fine polenta
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder

How to:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C and grease cake/muffin tins (I used large ramekins)
  2. Using an electric beater, mix together the butter and sugar until light and creamy
  3. Beat in the egg and then the reduced orange juice
  4. Stir in the zest
  5. Sift in the flour, polenta, baking powder and cinnamon and stir to combine
  6. Divide mixture among prepared tins
  7. Bake for around 20-30 mins, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  8. While cakes are hot, prick holes all over it with a skewer and pour half the syrup onto the cakes. Repeat once all the syrup has been absorbed.

I served the cakes with some creme fraiche mixed with 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 vanilla bean seeds.

It was moist, crumbly, so light it melted in the mouth and the sourness of the creme fraiche helped prevent the cake from being sickly sweet. It was just so delicious and it’s definitely something I would be excited, happy and proud to make for others.

To be honest, I don’t know what the cornmeal adds to the overall result but it can’t be bad with a result this good!

As you can see, my presentation skills are severely lacking and don’t, in any way, reflect how amazing this cake is – excuse the photo and try it out for yourself 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

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