I’ve not been mastering a new language, arranging my books into gender belief systems, nor drilling my own teeth (yet). But I did learn something new during Lockdown:
Polenta is a dish, cornmeal is an ingredient.
Midway into the Covid crisis, flour disappeared from the supermarket shelves and became a commodity even more precious than a Barbie nurse outfit. I know all about wartime starch substitutes like potatoes and sawdust but I wanted to be a bit more sophisticated than that. A bit more…European. Researching flourless cakes, I found polenta mentioned regularly in Italian recipes. None was available in the shops, but plenty of cornmeal could be bought online, “suitable for making polenta”. Further reading explained that the two should not be confused but frequently are.
I’d only used cornmeal previously for Mexican tortillas rather than cakes but hey, being indoors for 23 hours a day makes you try some crazy shit. So, in a corrupted version of Nigel Slater’s Polenta, apricot and marsala cakes (or Fairy Cakes for Grown-ups) I added apricots and a few sultanas soaked in an inch of Pédro Ximinez left over from Christmas, lemon zest, olive oil, sugar and eggs to a mound of ground almonds and fine cornmeal. Baked it all slowly in a loaf tin, drizzled some more sherry mixed with lemon juice and brown sugar on its warm surface and then left it wrapped in tin foil for two days.
Oh my. This is the kind of cake you serve to impress someone who has already eaten everything there is to eat. It’s for when Jay Rayner drops round. It’s the cake served by the old housekeeper at the hilltop home of a drug cartel boss when an undercover cop sits across from him, each man on a white leather sofa, and is told the story of how the señora first made it for her corazónito fifty years ago. The cop takes a bite, knowing that all eyes are on him but he doesn’t need to fake bliss. This cake is soft inside, crunchy on top, textured like fine knitwear. Te invito. (OK, this did in fact inspire me to brush up on my Spanish).
So, why did polenta and not cornmeal make it into the baking recipes of populist cooks such as Nigella, Ainsley, Delia, Jamie, Nadiya, Mary and Prue? It’s true that cakes need a less coarse grind of flour than savouries, and polenta naturally provides this - but cornmeal comes in a range of textures including fine. Maybe the word polenta is more poetic than cornmeal’s blunt descriptor? Or is it simply that for years, although polenta could be found in supermarkets as small bags of foreignness, it was a step too far into the unknown to pick up a sack of cornmeal in an ethnic corner shop? (I remember when the only places to stock olive oil - in doll-sized bottles - were pharmacies. Childhood earache still comes to mind when I look at the magnums of oil in food stores today.)
The funny thing is that polenta is not so authentically Mediterranean after all. The ‘otto file’ species actually originated in the US and was exported as ‘eight-row flint’ corn by 19th century settlers to northern Italy. Its high protein, starch and pigment content gives polenta its characteristic flavour, which is different to that of cornmeal. I guess that might matter when you’re just adding water but substitution is unlikely to be noticed in cake. Does swapping in a staple of African, Caribbean and South American cuisines amount to cultural appropriation? Maybe ask the Narragansett tribe of New England whose ancestors’ crops were ripped off in the first place.