Buon anno, friends! It’s lovely to be back here writing after a much-needed break. I came back from Italy rested and refreshed. I also came home to all the things to catch up on, so it’s taken me longer to get back to blogging. I can’t believe it’s already the end of January! Now that I’m (mostly) caught up, I’ve been able to spend more time researching recipes to share here in the new year and I am excited to get cooking and writing. I love how travel gets my creative juices flowing, and after every trip to Italy, I not only come back with a suitcase full of cookbooks and food magazines, I also come back full of inspiration. Thanks to a lifetime of traveling to Italy and growing up in a family that ate and cooked with the seasons, I grew up understanding what to eat during different times of the year, and my return trips to Italy as an adult have continued to reinforce and expand this knowledge. Italy in the winter is incredible and I thoroughly enjoyed eating winter produce and traditional winter recipes during our stay in Rome and the Veneto. Peter and I may have returned to much warmer temperatures here in Houston, but it is still winter, and my kitchen is stocked with what is currently in season, and that means a lot of citrus. Blood oranges are among my favorite agrumi, and I never miss the chance to buy them while my local grocery store has them in stock. Another one of my favorite winter foods is polenta, which is made from coarsely ground cornmeal. Italians use cornmeal in both sweet and savory recipes, and the refreshing fragrance of winter citrus and the pleasant texture of cornmeal are highlighted in this blood orange scented cornmeal cake.
Like bell peppers and tomatoes, corn was an import from the New World and came to Europe on a circuitous route through the eastern Mediterranean trade routes into the Veneto. It was (mistakenly) labeled gran turco (“Turkish grain”), Turkish meaning exotic or from far away. Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing corn to Europe, but it is also believed that mais found its way to other parts of the world even before Columbus set out for the Americas. Italy began cultivating corn in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century, it was a well-established crop. Italians didn’t eat the kernels as they considered it only fit for animal consumption; however, they did discover that corn made for a good and economical flour that could be turned into bread or polenta, and the grain took root as a staple food of the poor. Corn is still cultivated in Italy to this day, with different types and even heirloom varieties being stone ground into cornmeal to be used in both sweet and savory recipes. Although corn and cornmeal are no longer considered foods of the poor, they are still ingredients that are a firm part of Italy’s cucina povera: dishes that were once poor people’s subsistence, that have found their way into modern-day households, restaurants, and food publications.
My northern Italian paternal grandparents cooked often with corn and cornmeal, and the ingredient appeared in many forms at the dinner table when I was growing up–all of which I happily ate. It remains one of my favorite ingredients, and cornmeal is always in my pantry–mostly to make polenta– but also to use in baking, where it lends a pleasant texture to tart crusts, cookies, and cakes. Like many Italian desserts, this blood orange scented cornmeal cake is not overly sweet, which highlights the flavors of the blood orange zest, cornmeal, and toasted almonds. The crumb is light with the unmistakable crunch from the cornmeal and almonds. The glaze is optional, but it makes for a pretty and delicious adornment–just the right balance of sweet and tart in the loveliest shade of pale pink. You could also decorate it simply with a light dusting of powdered sugar. Then all you need is a pot of coffee (or tea) to accompany a slice of this dessert with classic Italian flavors.
A few housekeeping matters before I sign off: to kick off a new year of blogging, I’m making a few changes to the blog and some kitchen resolutions:
- I will not be reprising Friday Favorites. The posts were taking up too much time, and I want to dedicate all of my research and blog writing to recipes, including writing more The Side Dish posts, which will focus on a specific food-related topic.
- Introducing metric measurements! I am finally aboard the metric measurement bandwagon. Going forward, all recipes will include metric measurements for liquids, solids, temperatures, and dimensions. I will also be converting any past recipes in my archives to include metric measurements. But don’t panic–I am also keeping imperial/US measurements, but please note that measurements in cups (particularly for dry ingredients) can vary significantly depending on how one fills the implements. When converting a recipe, I will do my utmost to measure as accurately as possible so the recipe is successful regardless of which measurement units you use. Having said that, measuring by weight is always more accurate, so I encourage you to purchase a digital kitchen scale if you feel inclined to do so. They are easy to use, affordable, and precise. Plus, measuring in metric units opens up a whole new world of cookbooks and recipes you may not have yet discovered!
- Cucina Conversations is back in the new year! We wrote out our editorial calendar last year and have some wonderful topics about regional Italian food and culture headed your way. We will be going live with our posts next week, so be sure to check back soon.
- More cookbook reviews. At the end of last year, I added several wonderful new cookbooks to my bookshelves and there are cookbooks that I have owned for months (even years) that I don’t cook from often enough. I love reading cookbooks from cover to cover just just as much as I enjoy cooking from them, and every year, I renew my goal of putting my cookbooks to more frequent use. I also get immense satisfaction telling you about the cookbooks in my collection, so I plan on reviewing them more often.
- More basics recipes. These are some of my favorite blog posts to write because I feel like your virtual cooking class teacher, sharing my tips for the staple recipes of the Italian kitchen. I have made searching for my “basics” recipes easy by including the category in the tag cloud.
I’ll be back next Tuesday with this year’s first Cucina Conversations post.
Blood Orange Scented Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Italian Kitchen by Anna del Conte
For the cake
122 grams (¾ cup) whole, raw (unsalted) almonds, blanched or skin-on
124 grams (9 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened + extra for greasing cake pan
137 grams (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
80 grams (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour + extra for flouring cake pan
130 grams (¾ cup) coarsely ground cornmeal
8 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Zest of 1 blood orange
For the glaze
Juice of 1-2 blood oranges
For the cake
Heat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour a 9″ x 2″ (23cm x 5cm) round cake pan. Set aside.
Spread the almonds onto a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 5-7 minutes, or until they begin to turn light golden. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely. Maintain the oven temperature.
Place the cooled almonds in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse the almonds until they are finely ground, taking care not to over-process them or they will turn to flour.
In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. In the meantime, in a mixing bowl, combine the ground almonds, all-purpose flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt and whisk to combine. With the mixer on low speed, add in the flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks and pour them into the mixture over low speed, mixing until the eggs are fully incorporated. Mix in the orange zest. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the work bowl as necessary to make sure all the ingredients are incorporated.
Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan and use a spatula to smooth it out evenly. Bake the cake for 25-30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the center of the cake. The cake will shrink from the sides of the pan once it is finished baking. Remove from the oven and cool the cake completely in the pan set on a cooling rack.
Once cooled, run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake from the sides and invert the cake onto a rack to glaze.
To glaze the cake
Juice the blood oranges over a medium size bowl and whisk in enough powdered sugar until there are no lumps and the glaze is thick but still pourable. Pour the glaze over the cake set on a rack on top of a piece of parchment paper. Allow the glaze to firm up before slicing the cake.
Storage: Store the cake at room temperature lightly covered with plastic wrap and eat within 3-5 days.