Sara’s rosemary olive oil cake topped with sweetened mascarpone.
Polenta cake with Olive Oil, Moscato, and Rosemary
Have you ever come across a Venetian wine cake made with white wine, olive oil, rosemary, and almonds? It’s moist but not overly sweet. I’m dying to find a recipe. I tasted it in a little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn (Bensonhurst?) I went to the first time I visited New York City (almost 20 years ago)-taken there by an old family friend (now deceased)-don’t remember much about the meal but this-don’t know where the restaurant is/was or whether it still exists. You see my problem!
Thanks in advance.
About a dozen years ago I was cooking at not a hole in the wall but Le Madri, one of Pino Luongo’s first restaurants. It was a very fancy place, packed with demanding celebrities, and a very exhausting job. I did learn a lot there (how to cut baby artichokes on a meat slicer without cutting my hand off, for instance, and how to make a paper thin frittata that was crisp and delicate). An occasional dessert was a polenta cake flavored with rosemary, olive oil, and white wine. I believe it was called a Tuscan polenta cake, not a Venetian cake (this was after all theoretically a Tuscan restaurant). I don’t recall almonds being a part of it, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have killed it. It is true that Italian food in this country can get sweeping labels, and when I see something on a menu called Tuscan, Venetian, or Sicilian, it often doesn’t mean much, and I wonder why the chef ever bothered to name it as such. I looked up Venetian olive oil and rosemary cake in all my usual sources and couldn’t come up with anything specifically Venetian. I did find a few rosemary and olive oil cakes-no polenta-that were referred to as Tuscan.. Whatever the actually origin of the Le Madri cake, I was crazy for it. At the time I had never tasted a sweet thing that included rosemary, and the idea of olive oil in a cake turned me off before I tasted the delicious thing. Sara’s e-mail brought the lovely fragrance of the cake back to me. She didn’t actually mention polenta being a component of her cake, but all the flavorings were the same, so I just went with my hunch that this would be close to what she was looking for.
I didn’t have a recipe for the Le Madri cake, so I decided to try to recreate it for Sara (and me) from my foggy memory. It was not something I ever cooked at Le Madri myself, being basically a line cook, but I used to snoop around while the Italian “mothers” were cooking, so I more or less watched what went into it. I can’t recall what type of wine they used, but I sensed that a sweet one such as a moscato would be very nice in this, so that’s what I went with. As I started playing around with it, baking my first one, I immediately came to realize that one of the keys to the cake’s charm is in not going crazy with the rosemary. My first cake tasted too intense, like a medicine, or somehow reminiscent of the hashish brownies of my childhood. The quality of olive oil in the cake is also extremely important. I wanted something fruity and olivey, with no greasy heaviness (no extra-virgin Colavita here). I went with my much-loved Sicilian oil Ravida, thinking that a Tuscan oil (even for a supposed Tuscan cake) might be too green and biting. The Ravida gave it a beautiful flavor.
While testing the cake, I remembered another polenta cake I had made not too long ago, and that one really had been Venetian. It was called pinza or pincia Veneziana, and was a cake eaten in Venice on the feast of the Epiphany. I jumped the gun a bit last year, baking one for Christmas. The recipe was elaborate, I believe involving cornmeal, grappa or rum, and dried figs and raisins and candied orange, maybe pine nuts too; it is very much a fruitcake, although lighter than most American or English ones. No rosemary in it, but I recall using fennel seeds at some point (maybe to sprinkle on top?). I cooked that cake from a recipe I found in The Da Fiore Cookbook, from the famous restaurant of that name in Venice. I seem no longer to have the elegant book, so I can’t check on the ingredients, but I know it to be a traditional Venetian cake, and I figured it would have many variations, as I discovered when I looked into it elsewhere (some are made with breadcrumbs instead of polenta, for instance). This, of course, doesn’t sound anything like the cake Sara remembers, but I thought I might as well just throw it in to confuse her.
I do have a feeling my “Tuscan” cake will be very close to what she tasted in Brooklyn many years ago. I had to reach back in my own culinary memory to recreate it, but it came out, not exactly like the one I remember from the restaurant, but pretty close. My first try at baking it resulted in a dry and very lightly sweetened cake, more like a quick bread (plus, as I already mentioned, sickeningly laced with too much rosemary). I kept adding more olive oil , more sugar, and less cornmeal, until I came up with something that seemed familiar. My cake was less dense than the original, but I nevertheless liked it very much, so I stopped testing.
I wish I could taste this cake again for the first time, but since that’s not possible, I’m just happy to have it back in my life in some form. Sara, I hope I’ve come close for you too.
Polenta Cake with Olive Oil, Moscato, and Rosemary
Softened butter for greasing the pan
1/2 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sweet white wine, such as an Italian moscato or a Muscat de Beaume de Venise
Powdered sugar for the top
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Coat a Bundt pan well with soft butter.
In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and rosemary, and stir well to blend.
Place the sugar and eggs in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until pale yellow and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
While still mixing, slowly add the olive oil. Add the wine and then the flour mixture, and mix just until blended.
Pour the batter into the pan, and bake until the cake is fragrant, golden, and springy to the touch, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let the cake cool for about 15 minutes and then turn it out of the pan. After it’s cooled, dust the top with powdered sugar.