A different taste of Italy
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
BY SUSAN SPRAGUE YESKE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL MANCUSO
Think Italian, but forget pasta for a moment. In northern Italy, it's
cornmeal-based polenta that has nourished generations.
More than 30 variations of the staple, lovingly prepared by home cooks,
were served at the recent Polenta Festa at Dorothea's House in Princeton
Smothered in cheeses or to mato sauce, sweet or hot peppers, sausage,
chicken, prosciutto, lentils or mushrooms, or baked into cookies and
cakes, polenta's versatility was evident in the dishes that filled a
long table and spilled over to a nearby counter.
Moments after the table was filled, more than 100 guests -- some of
Italian heritage, but many not -- formed a long line and waited their
turn to fill their plates.
Dorothea's House was founded in 1914 as a welcoming place for Princeton's
poor immigrant Italian families. Still an integral resource for Italian
Americans, it hosts monthly programs, most involving scholarships and
"Once a year we have a program about food," said Alessandra
Mazzucato of Princeton. Only one a year because, "I don't want
people to think Italty is just about food."
That night is the Polenta Festa, when anyone of any heritage can bring
a dish or come to enjoy what others have made.
"That's the beauty of Dorothea's House, that everybody comes here,"
said Mazzucato, who serves on the board of trustees and initiated the
Why polenta? "Because that's what I ate when I was growing up,"
she said, smiling.
Polenta, in varying forms, has been part of the northern Italian diet
for centuries. It was made from other grains or legumes until corn,
which is native to the Americas, was introduced in the 1700s.
Since, it has been the Italian version of a cornmeal mush. It is served
at lunch and dinner, as a side dish with sauce or vegetables, under
stewed meats, in cakes or as breakfast cereal.
That's how Ellie Pinelli of Princeton remembers it. Although her heritage
is southern Italian, she said her family and neighbors ate it each morning.
Mazzucato recalls her parents eating their largest meal at noon, then
having a bowl of polenta with milk for a simple supper.
For many people, polenta is known only as the log-shaped rolls found
in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. But those cooking for
the Polenta Festa made it the old-fashioned way, standing over a pot
of boiling water, adding the cornmeal and stirring, stirring, stirring
until it was cooked.
After that, they ladled or poured it into different shapes, de pending
on how it was to be served.
One cook formed the polenta into a thick round the size of a large pizza,
with meat and cheese mixed in. Pinelli poured hers by spoonfuls onto
wax paper, then layered the discs with onions and mushrooms. Still others
poured it into a long pan, and when it cooled, cut it into slices or
wedges to use as a base for a dish.
Milena Troiano of Princeton Junction has a cookbook of polenta recipes.
Each year she finds another one to try. This year, she made a cake with
cognac, walnuts and polenta.
She has family recipes, she said, but, "Every year I like to try
In recent years, polenta has become a favorite of some of the most prestigious
chefs who enjoy using it as a palette on which to "paint"
their culinary creations. As proof of that, Gilda McCauley of Hillsborough
made a Martha Stewart recipe for Almond Polenta Cake that impressed
Linda Prospero of Princeton, who also is a member of the board of trustees
for Dorothea's House, is still sorting through her mother's polenta
recipes. For the festa, she made a personal favorite, Polenta with Parmesan
and Crispy Prosciutto, which was quickly scooped up by the guests. This
is her recipe:
Polenta with Parmesan and Crispy Prosciutto
1 cup cornmeal 1 cup milk
1 cup water
about 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1 1/4 cups parmesan, grana padano, or any good sharp grating cheese
dabs of butter
4 or 5 slices of prosciutto, baked in the oven until crisp, and broken
Cook cornmeal with milk and water. Start with cold liquids to avoid
lumps. Add, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat, using a
whisk at first, then switch ing to a wooden spoon when mix ture thickens.
Cook until very thick. Beat eggs with 1 cup of the cheese.
Add eggs to hot polenta mix ture, but not all at once, or you risk scrambling
the eggs. The best way to do it is to "temper" the eggs, by
adding a little bit of the hot polenta to the eggs, to raise the temperature
of the eggs. Add the eggs to the polenta. Pour into a shallow pan that
has been sprayed with oil or rubbed with butter. Let cool in the refrigerator
Using a round biscuit cutter or the rim of a glass, cut the polenta
into rounds. Use the odd bits to cover the bottom of a buttered cas
serole. Place the rounds pieces of polenta on top, overlapping in one
layer. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup of cheese on top, or add more if desired.
Place in 450-degree oven for 15 minutes. Add the prosciutto bits on
top and bake another 10-15 minutes.
Recipe can easily be doubled.
Gilda McCauley made this recipe from the (www.marthaste wart.com) Web
Martha Stewart's Polenta Almond Cake
Makes one 8-inch cake
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds
1/2 cup finely ground polenta
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) un salted butter, room temperature, plus
2 tablespoons melted, for pan
1 cup sugar, plus more for pan
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread sliced almonds in a single layer
on a small baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 10 to
15 minutes. Transfer to a shal low bowl; set aside to cool. In the bowl
of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, finely grind whole
almonds; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground al monds,
polenta, flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Pour
melted butter into an 8-by-2-inch round cake pan, swirling to coat bottom
and brushing up sides of the pan. Sprinkle with sugar and toasted sliced
almonds; set aside. Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric
mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat until light and fluffy.
Add eggs one at a time, beating to combine after each addition. Beat
in orange juice and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients, slowly beating
just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with
an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center
comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer baking pan to wire rack
to cool for 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan, and cool completely.
Contact Susan Sprague Yeske at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 989-5661.
Contact Michael Mancuso at www.michaelmancuso.net