Easy Polenta Cake

Polenta appears to be somewhat under-appreciated outside of Northern Italy. Where it is more beloved than Italy's famous affinity with pasta. It is the European cousin to southern America's "hominy grits", but for Italy, may pre-date pasta, pizza and even yeast bread. In fact, in an earlier form, it was consumed by the Roman army during Roman times. At its heart, polenta is good, honest peasant food, and was a staple for centuries among Italy's peasantry. Where they traditionally made it in a copper cauldron, burning over a wood fire, and stirring the polenta with a thick wooden stick (as many still do). Now that's rustic!

Fortunately, at The Recipeless Cook, you don't have to slave over a hot cauldron, stirring like a mad witch for 60 minutes straight. With modern methods in your employ, you can have a delicious polenta meal in... oh about 12 minutes with... just about no stirring. Sound interesting? Well read on!


1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal (aka "corn grits" aka "polenta")
3 to 4 cups water (or chicken stock, or milk)
1/3 to 1/2 lb. grated cheese (and / or powdered cheese)
500 ml. approx tomato-based pasta (aka "spaghetti") sauce, or tomato sauce
Vegetables (or meat) of your choice
White pepper (optional)


Making the Filling 

Bottom layer of polenta,
second layer tomato sauce
third (top) layer vegetables
This dish is a simple layered polenta, with a filling of vegetables (or even meat, if you wish). The idea is to sauté the vegetables seperately, then layer them in the dish. Traditionally, with polenta you might marry it with steamed spinach, kale, fresh basil or other greens, tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, mushrooms or other typical "summer" vegetables. But I say throw in whatever vegetables you have or desire (other than potatoes or similar root vegetables, which don't combine well with cornmeal). I happened to have brocolli, carrots, and green bell pepper on hand; so I used that.

Start by sauteeing chopped onion in a pan on med, in a bit of olive oil. When softening, turn to med-low. Add garlic, soften. Add your desired vegetables (either one at a time, so as not to overcrowd the pan, or all at once, if you plan on steaming them somewhat). Cook until vegetables are tender-crisp (brightly coloured), or to your desired consistency.

Cooking the Polenta

Top layer of polenta after spreading out
Polenta poured over top
of vegetables
I offer several ways to cook polenta, because variety is the spice of life, after all. The microwave method, which I admit is new for me, is a good compromise between less work and decent texture. It is the "easy" in the title "Easy Polenta Cake". The stovetop pot method is closer to a traditional way of making it, and may provide better results. I believe all methods create somewhat different results, and whichever you choose, depends on what your priorities are. (n.b. For added flavour, you can substitute chicken broth for water (omitting the additional salt), or milk, or cream, or add white pepper. At the end of cooking, you can also if desired, add a bit of butter, or grated or powdered cheese (ie. romano, pecarino, parmesan).

Conventional pot: 

Easy (nearly no-stir) method: In a med saucepan, boil 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt (always add salt to a pot after water is boiling). Then slowly whisk in 1 cup of polenta (cornmeal), with a whisk or wooden spoon. Turn heat to low or med-low (depending on your stovetop), and simmer covered. Stir with a wooden spoon every ten minutes or so, for about a minute, until the polenta is stiff enough to hold the spoon upright (about 45 minutes).

Traditional method: In a med saucepan, boil 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt (always add salt to a pot after water is boiling). Then slowly whisk in 1 cup of polenta (cornmeal), with a whisk or wooden spoon. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Polenta is done when the texture is smooth and can hold a spoon upright. If not fully cooked, add additional water and continue to cook.


Cornmeal polenta,
after cooking using
microwave method
In a microwave safe bowl, add 3 1/2 cups of water with 1 cup of cornmeal, and a teaspoon of salt. Microwave on high for six minutes. Stir, microwave for another 6 to 10 minutes, until the polenta is thick enough to hold a fork upright.

Pressure cooker:

You can also cook polenta in a pressure cooker, if you don't have a microwave oven. You won't save time, but like with the microwave, there's little work involved (though more work cleaning up, later). Boil 4 cups of water in the cooker (with the lid off), stir in 1 cup of polenta (cornmeal) with 1 teaspoon of salt. (Pour in a little at a time, stirring in one direction only). Lock the lid in place, and bring the cooker to pressure. Reduce heat to med-low, cook 5 minutes, remove from heat and allow the pot to de-pressurize by itself (5 to 10 min.).  

n.b. Note that  you should proceed to the next and final step very quickly after the polenta is cooked, because it hardens quickly.

Baking the Polenta

Completed dish
with cheese and tomato sauce
Oil an 8" or 9" square glass (or metal) baking dish with olive oil. Pour in about half of the polenta into the bottom of the baking dish, and mash down with the back of a spoon to spread it evenly across the bottom. Pour in enough spaghetti or tomato sauce to cover the bottom, and spread evently. Pour in your vegetable mixture and spread evenly. Pour in the remaining polenta, patting it down with the back of the spoon, to spread evenly over the vegetables. Decide whether you want to add the cheese next, or the sauce, and then the cheese (according to your preference). If cheese goes next, drop 1/3 to 1/2 pound of grated cheese (e.g. mozarella) in the centre, and spread it out evenly over the surface. Pour on enough tomato sauce to cover the top.

The magic of Chef Boy Hardy
Bake in a 350F degree oven for 15-30 minutes, until the cheese is melted, the sauce is bubbling, and the polenta fairly solid. Cut into squares or rectangles to serve.



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