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Preserved Lemon & Almond Polenta Torta


They’re ready, at last. The lemons have transformed and are ready to play with. But how? We’ve seen them in a savory dish, Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Olives, but how do they fare in sweets?

I went on a search for a lemon almond polenta torta many years ago after reading about a production of the play, “Dinner with Friends,” in which this cake plays a starring role. The play (now also a movie) is about a food-writing couple, just returned from vacationing in Italy, who want to re-create some of the wonderful meals they enjoyed during their travels with their two closest friends, another couple. During the dessert course, trouble ensues. Anyway, the director in the review I was reading raves about the authentic lemon almond polenta cake he baked for his cast, but doesn’t actually offer a recipe, and so I searched.

I came across this dense Italian version in the Boston Globe, featured in a story that was actually about olive oil, and using olive oil in place of butter in baking sweets. It was a novel concept to me at the time, but one I’ve since adopted for much of our cake baking. But this was the recipe that started it all. It was intriguing in so many ways, it contained no flour, no butter, and used an entire lemon — pith, pulp and peel! The final result is bright, lemony, dense and decadent cake. The Globe article quotes American-born pastry chef, Faith Willinger saying, “People use olive oil because it is healthier [than the alternatives], and it lets the genuine flavors stand up for what they are. Butter coats the whole palate and makes everything sweeter. Olive oil complements, rather than hides, flavor." Chef Willinger has taught cooking classes and writes about food for over 25 years from her home base in Florence.

To celebrate the end of our five weeks of patience, it seemed appropriate to use these precious lemons for a cake. By the way, last week I found preserved lemons in a local supermarket: it was over $10 a bottle for 2 small lemons! It’s so easy to make at home, I hope more people try this themselves. (Learn how)

Since the lemons are preserved in salt, I simply elminated the salt in the original recipe. I also used some of the olive oil that was sealing the lemon brine to make up part of the olive oil used in the recipe (and topped off the lemon jar with additional oil), but that’s optional. I did use the almond extract this time, as I had done with the original raw lemon version, but I would not use it again if using preservd lemons. With the raw lemon, the extract blended well with the bright citrus in the lemon; but the preserved lemon gave the cake a rounder lemon flavor, still intense but without the acidity, and the extract is noticeably distinct and remains apart from the lemon. The biggest difference for me is this: I can enjoy the preserved lemon version with coffee, something I couldn’t do with the original. Again, it’s the acidity. I have to admit that I don’t like the combination of coffee and citrus — the citrus changes the taste of my lovely coffee (black, no sugar so other flavors really affect it). However, with the volatile oils softened after 5 weeks in brine, I can enjoy the lemon flavor in the cake and still savor my coffee. The two versions are different enough that I would consider serving them at different times, different occasions — the original for a Sunday brunch, served with iced or hot tea, and maybe a shot of Limoncello, or even a lemonade; the preserved version after dinner, with coffee and later a digestif.

That’s what food always comes back to, isn’t it — creating your best for family and friends. And with that thought, this cake goes with our love and prayers to Briana Brownlow at Figs with Bri, via Jugalbandi’s special CLICK event for June — a yellow culinary theme that doubles as a fundraiser to help Bri meet her costs for medical treatments. Normally Bri creates with and writes about organic foods on her site, but understandably is focusing her considerable energy on this second bout with breast cancer that has mestatasized into her lungs and lymph nodes. Jugalbandi’s bee and Jai have organized an account payable directly to Bri to allow her to explore medical options that her insurance company refuses to cover. They are asking for $25 donations from 500 people to help Bri cover these costs. If you would like to help, and to learn more about Bri’s fight, visit Jugalbandi or Figs with Bri.

Take care, dear Bri, and God Bless!

PRESERVED LEMON & ALMOND POLENTA TORTA
(adapted from the Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2003)
4-6 pieces of preserved lemon, enough to equal one whole lemon
1/2 cup (85g) cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1-1/4 cups (250g) blanched almonds
1 + 1/4 (190g + 48g) cups raw sugar (coarse granulated or demerara)
1/2 cup (120ml) fruity olive oil (optional: use some from the top of the preserved lemons)
1/2 cup (120ml) evaporated milk
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
Confectioners' sugar, for garnish
Drained full-fat yogurt, for garnish

Pre-heat oven tp 350F/180C.

Oil a 9-inch round cake pan, line with wax or parchment paper cut to fit, and oil the paper.

In a bowl mix together the cornmeal and baking powder.

In a food processor, pulse the almonds with 1 cup of sugar to make a slightly coarse mixture.

Cut each preserved lemon piece in half, and remove any remaining seeds. Add to the ground almond mixture. Pulse again until the mixture forms a heavy puree. Taste for sweetness and add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, if necessary. Add the oil, milk, eggs, and (if using) almond extract. Process for 1 to 2 minutes or until just combined. Add the cornmeal mixture and pulse just briefly to combine.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until golden brown and slightly moist in the center.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Run a knife around the cake, invert it onto a cake plate, then invert back onto another plate so the baked side is on top. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve with drained yogurt and fresh fruit, if desired. The original is served with ricotta cream, see Boston Globe article for recipe.

For a lighter version of lemon almond polenta cake, see Nic’s beautiful creation at Cherrapeno.

Other recipes with preserved lemons: Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Olives, Fig-Stuffed Roast Lamb with Mushroom & Port Gravy, and Lamb Shanks with Preserved Lemons and Gremolata