Fig Polenta Cake (and Belated Unchained Anniversary)

Blogging here may be sporadic from now on, but for very good reason, especially when I think about why I started this blog a little over two years ago on July 8, 2009. Back then, I was studying for the Washington State Bar exam and reeling from the news that I’d had a spontaneous miscarriage, a second miscarriage in a single year. Cooking was a beautiful outlet from all the sadness and stress in my life at the time, and sharing my ideas in a format that allowed me to talk about food memories and happier moments in my life was a form of healthy coping. Two years later, my life has a new stressful undertaking, but a beautiful one. Early Tuesday morning, after 15 hours of labor and another 8 hours of induction, my husband and I welcomed a beautiful baby girl into this world.

Despite the exhaustion of being in the hospital for 4 days, running on less than 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep per day, and dealing with the ups and downs of trying to maintain healthy input and output of a newborn, I found myself on Thursday afternoon (our first full day at home with the baby) running on a huge adrenaline high. I just felt extremely energetic, perhaps because of the combination of being in surprisingly little pain post-partum and having lots of welcomed help with meals supplied by my parents. John and I went for our first walk outside with the baby to pick up our CSA share, and we talked about what to do with the flat plus 2 pints of strawberries we knew we’d be receiving. I wanted to make this strawberry summer cake, a late pregnancy favorite, but John suggested baking a tribute to that cake: making this olive oil polenta cake I had made last year (but failed to blog) and baking the fresh figs into the cake. We could then top the cake with tons of ripe, ruby-red strawberries.

I eagerly ran to my yarn stash– I’d developed a habit last year of writing down measurements used when experimenting in baking so I could give more accurate instructions when blogging, and those notes tended to be stuffed hastily into a yarn drawer where I kept scrap pieces of paper (I’m not very well-organized.) We’d cleaned out that set of drawers to use it as a diaper station in the baby’s nursery, and apparently in the cleaning out, I’d lost my notes on that cake. I had to start thinking about ingredients and process from scratch.

Wanting to Facebook about something other than the baby, I posted as my status that I was going to find time and energy to reinvent that polenta cake. This was then met with a flurry of comments from friends and family asking if I was delirious and instructing me to go to sleep at once. Despite the well-wishes, I gave into the adrenaline high and decided to go ahead and bake the cake thinking I’d never find this energy again, not while we had access to both fresh figs and beautiful strawberries.

So I mixed together flour with coarse cornmeal, egg yolks with olive oil, flavored things with lemon zest and almond extract, and whipped separated egg whites to try to lighten the cake that would otherwise be dense from the olive oil and cornmeal. I had a pasty batter which I spread out in a buttered cake pan and carefully pressed quartered figs into the lemony yellow batter. A sprinkle of sugar on top was added with the hope that this might help caramelize the figs. Once the cake had finished baking, I promptly crashed out of my adrenaline high and barely finished dinner with my eyes still open.

We waited to cut into the cake until last night when my brother and his family, along with an uncle and my parents joined us for dinner. The cake itself is a little too heavy in olive oil flavor for me, and is still really dense– moist in the center with soft, slightly jammy figs, crusty and a little dry on the edges, and overall, is almost savory rather than super sweet. But add the strawberries? Pretty awesome, unless sleep deprivation is altering my palate. The strawberries draw out more sweetness from the cake and pair beautifully in texture and taste with the figs and light lemon flavors, respectively. As I ate my piece, sharing it with John, I thought about how I have so much to be grateful for: I was in a completely different and so much better place than I was two years ago. Here I was at the same dining room table, where I had forced myself to put energy into an outline for a test for a license I felt I would never actually want to use but as a way to distract myself to keep from wanting to wallow in the pain of another difficult loss. Now, I was surrounded by family who was joining us to celebrate the birth of a new, very beloved and long-awaited baby.  If that’s a situation that doesn’t call for cake in some form, then I don’t know what will.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup medium ground yellow cornmeal
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  • juice of 1/2 large lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 large eggs, separated, discarding one white (so you have 3 yolks and 2 egg whites)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar plus 2 tablespoons, divided
  • 1 pint fresh figs, quartered
  • 2 pints of fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a 9 inch round cake pan with butter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. In a small bowl, combine lemon zest, juice, almond extract, yolks and olive oil. Whisk until combined. In a mixing bowl whip the 2 egg whites to medium stiff peaks then quickly beat in sugar– the mixture should look shiny, peaks should hold and softly collapse, and when you lift the mixer whisk attachment up, the whites should slowly drip back into the bowl, almost like syrup pouring back down. Add the dry and wet mixtures to the egg whites and using a rubber spatula, fold until all is combined.

Spread batter into cake pan then carefully squish the fig quarters into the batter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining two tablespoons of sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool then slice and serve, topped with strawberries.

CSA Count: 1




6 thoughts on “Fig Polenta Cake (and Belated Unchained Anniversary)

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