I specifically wanted to post this particular recipe this week because Father's Day and July 4th are both coming up soon, which often involve big family gatherings. Four generations of The Lawyer's family get together for July 4th every year, and I thought this cake would make a great addition to the picnic because you can cut it into a lot of small pieces and it doesn't have frosting that would melt in the sun. Then I remembered that several people in the family have serious issues with gluten. By sheer luck, this cake is gluten free which made it all the more attractive and will make me appear more considerate than I actually am. If you have a large gathering in your future and some of the people are trying to avoid gluten, this is a perfect choice.
The cake is Italian in origin, where cornmeal cakes are common. The lemon glaze soaks into the cake, making it very moist at the same time the cornmeal gives it a slightly crunchy texture that's very appealing. The lemon zest in the cake combines with the lemon glaze to give the cake an intense lemon flavor. I made it in a square tart pan although any 9" round or square tart or springform pan with a removable bottom will work. The cake is relatively flat but it does rise a little as it bakes so just be sure your pan isn't full to the brim before baking. I was experimenting with my new pan and lucked out - it was darn close to spilling over and making a mess but it ended up just slightly drooping over one or two sides so it was easy to cut those off. For a while when it was baking I was afraid to look.
One of the benefits of this cake is that it actually improves if you let it sit overnight in the refrigerator - I think the glaze soaks in more uniformly and the cake gets a little firmer, which makes it easier to cut.
The recipe calls for fine polenta. I couldn't find fine polenta at the store but I already had regular polenta and cornmeal at home so I experimented. Both are corn products; the difference is mainly in how fine they're cut. When I compared the two side by side, the polenta was more coarse than the cornmeal. I first made the recipe using polenta, and felt it was a little too crunchy. The Lawyer brought the rest of the cake to work, and his co-workers were split 50/50 on whether the texture was just right or too coarse but everyone loved the lemon flavor. The second time I made the cake with cornmeal and it was more to my liking. I would expect fine polenta to be similar to cornmeal in terms of coarseness so I would recommend using cornmeal, which is more readily available and you probably even have in your pantry. (I'm still calling it "polenta cake" because it sounds more elegant than "cornmeal cake".)
Two ingredients that you probably don't have in your pantry are superfine sugar and almond meal/flour. I really don't know why the recipe calls for superfine sugar and probably wouldn't bother buying it just for this - I just happened to have some on hand but can't imagine it would make much difference. Almond meal/flour, on the other hand, is important for texture, taste and the gluten-free aspect. I would check out the local natural food store or coop to get the cheapest price and to see if you can buy the exact amount you need in the bulk aisle since you probably won't need it again for a while.
Lemon Polenta Cake
Makes one 9” cake, cuts into approximately 24 small pieces
14 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups almond meal/flour
¾ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (gluten free)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
1 heaping cup of confectioner’s sugar
Special equipment: square or round 9” tart or springform pan with removable bottom, parchment paper
Line the base of the pan with parchment paper and grease its sides lightly with butter. Preheat the oven to 350d.
Using a mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until pale and whipped. In a separate bowl, mix together the almond meal, polenta and baking powder, then add a third of the dry mixture to the butter-sugar mixture and beat together. Add one egg and beat. Repeat, alternating the dry mix and eggs. Finally, beat in the lemon zest, reserving the juice for the syrup. Spoon the mix into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for approximately 30 minutes until lightly browned and the edges have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven to a wire cooling rack placed over a cutting board or pan (to catch drips), leaving the cake in its pan.
Make the syrup by heating the lemon juice and confectioner’s syrup in a small saucepan until the sugar is completely dissolved. Prick the top of the cake all over with a toothpick, spoon the syrup all over the cake, and let cool. Once cooled, the cake can be removed from the pan. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before cutting.
Make ahead: the cake can be baked up to 3 days ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen wrapped in plastic wrap and foil, for up to 1 month. Thaw 3-4 hours at room temperature.