We’ve just had a long weekend in London, so of course someone decided to organise a barbecue. Normally a cause for celebration, but there is this rather odd phenomenon in England, where by a long weekend seems to pretty much guarantee that the weather will be bad. In fairness, we’d had three days of solid rain, so at some point the skies were due to run out of water, but it seemed that Sunday was not the day that we would be lucky. I can assure you that it was pretty hard to coax me out from under the duvet, as a wet day in someone’s back garden is always far less appealing that reading the papers in bed with endless cups of tea.
I digress. Attending a barbecue, I had to take something, and I was on dessert duty. I could have gone for those staples such as fruit salad, chocolate cake or Eton Mess, but I just fancied something different. Then I remembered a recipe for (surprise, surprise) a polenta and ricotta cake that I had been meaning to try. My experience of such cakes to date has been good, and this one is jazzed up by adding a decent amount of apricots. I also liked the idea that this was vaguely Italian, thus keeping alive the memory of my holiday, which seems so long ago when you look outside and see dozens of umbrellas and people battling the wind as they walk.
Always feeling the need to improvise and tweak recipes, I swapped cognac for Japanese plum wine as the medium in which to soak the apricots, infusing them with a delicious plummy, port-like flavour. I also omitted the walnuts suggested in the original recipe. I like walnuts, but I didn’t think they would fit this cake. I also cut down the amount of sugar, added a little lemon zest, and swapped some of the polenta with fine maize meal (because, eh, I ran out of polenta and had fine maize meal in the cupboard. As I said, it has been raining and I didn’t want to go outside more than necessary!).
This cake was a breeze to make. No messing around with eggs. Just melt some butter, then throw everything into a bowl and use and electric beater to get everything nice and fluffy. With the orange of the apricots and the yellow of the lemon zest, polenta and the butter, it was quite a “sunny” baking experience. And just to force the point, the cake was then glazed with apricot jam, leaving it with a pleasant orange glow. And a good way to use that home-made apricot jam you happen to have lying in the fridge.
But given the eggless character of this cake, how was it? Compared to something like a Victoria sponge, the cake does have a slightly more solid, dense character to it. The addition of the alcohol-soaked apricots therefore makes a welcome addition to the texture. I really liked it – more of an old-fashioned teacake than a big, fluffy bit of sponge, with little notes of freshness from the lemon and the texture of the polenta coming through. When paired with a spoonful of smooth room-temperature mascarpone, this made for a superb afternoon treat.
For the polenta and ricotta cake:
• 250g dried apricots (the soft type)
• 4 tablespoons plum wine or cognac
• 200g plain flour
• 70g coarse polenta
• 130g fine maize meal
• 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 100g butter, melted and cooled
• 200g sugar
• 250g ricotta
• zest of 1 lemon
• 180ml water, lukewarm
• apricot jam, to glaze
Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°C). Line a 20 cm springform cake tray with baking parchment.
Slice the apricots into slivers (easiest with clean scissors) and mix with the plum wine or cognac. Leave to sit for at least 15 minutes, ideally until all the liquid has been absorbed.
In a bowl, combine the flour, polenta, maize meal and baking powder. Pour in the melted butter, sugar, ricotta, lemon zest and water. Mix with an electric beater until creamy and smooth (around 1 minute).
Finally, fold the apricots through the batter.
Pour into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Try to get a swirly pattern you are happy with, as the top will not become smooth during baking.
Loosely cover the top of the cake tray with tin foil, and put into the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the tin foil. Keep baking until the cake is risen, golden and springy to the touch. An inserted skewer should come out clean. Total cooking time will be between 1 and 1 1/2 hours.
Remove the cooked cake from the oven, and allow to cool in the tin. Before serving, glaze the top of the cake with apricot jam, and serve slices with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraîche.
Worth making? This was a lovely cake which made a change from the usual sponge cake. The flavours work well together, and it looks rustic and pretty, so minimal fuss necessary in terms of decorating. Well worth trying.