Heart of Darkness: Chocolate Polenta Cake
Having grown up on savory polenta, which is a staple of both Italian and Portuguese cooking, I couldn’t resist trying this recipe for chocolate polenta cake. I was baking dessert to take along to dinner at the home of friends, Kristin (the talented artist and author behind Craft Leftovers) and her partner, Jason. Kristin was experimenting with roasting a whole duck she and Jason had picked up at the farmer’s market, so I felt justified in bringing an untested dessert to round out the meal.
The cake recipe is modified from Gale Gand’s original recipe. Gale Gand is my go-to cookbook author for desserts; her Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs is packed with wonderful treats, and I have never had one of her recipes fail me. However, this recipe called for the cake to be baked in a 9″ x 13″ cake pan, and I just couldn’t do it. Fancy-pants, labor intensive cakes should be round. I realize this is a weird and illogical conviction, but I find the sheet pan to be such a humble form for a cake. It’s fine for a simple, humble cake like the “After the Flood” Chocolate Cake, but not for one that requires separating 11 eggs. That’s right — ELEVEN eggs.
I knew changing the shape of the cake so dramatically would require changing the baking temperature, and that I still might be risking the cake drying out on its perimeter before the moist center was baked through. However, the theme of this dinner was experimentation, so I forged ahead with my 9″ springform pan. The lovely and unexpected result of baking this cake in a springform pan was that the top layer puffed up over the top of the pan, like a muffin top, and got quite crunchy, like a meringue cookie, while the inside of the cake stayed moist and fudgy. The Logistically-Minded Gentleman pointed out halfway through baking that I could have separated the batter into two smaller, round cake pans, which, admittedly, would have been the most sensible option, but then we wouldn’t have discovered the crunchy delight of the “muffin top.” Served with freshly whipped cream on the side, this rich, chocolate cake was a sweet success.
Chocolate Polenta Cake
16 oz. (about 2 2/3 cups) semi-sweet chocolate bits
2 sticks butter (either salted or unsalted is fine)
11 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar, divided
2 Tbsp Grand Marnier or other brandy
1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal or polenta
1 cup whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 275 F, and butter the sides and bottom of a 9″ springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and set aside.
Separate the eggs one at a time over a small working bowl, so if you break the yolk, you will not contaminate your entire reserve of whites. Collect the whites in a large glass or metal bowl, and the yolks in a second large bowl.
In a medium glass bowl in the microwave, melt the chocolate bits and butter together in short bursts of about 30 seconds. Watch carefully and stir thoroughly between heatings, in order to use as little heat as possible and avoid burning the chocolate. When smoothly combined, set aside the chocolate mixture to cool slightly.
Using a whisk or a hand mixer, whip the yolks with 1/2 cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Clean and dry the beaters thoroughly, and then beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Fold the chocolate into the yolk mixture and stir just until combined. Gently fold in the whites, and then the brandy. Sprinkle the polenta evenly over the surface of the batter. Polenta has a tendency to clump up,so try to avoid creating lumps. Gently fold the polenta into the batter until it is well distributed. Do not overmix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour and 20-30 minutes, or until the center of the cake feels set when lightly pressed with a finger. Set the pan on a rack to cool. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, and serve on the side.