A different taste of Italy
Wednesday, January 23, 2008



Think Italian, but forget pasta for a moment. In northern Italy, it's cornmeal-based polenta that has nourished generations.
More than 30 variations of the staple, lovingly prepared by home cooks, were served at the recent Polenta Festa at Dorothea's House in Princeton Borough.
Smothered in cheeses or to mato sauce, sweet or hot peppers, sausage, chicken, prosciutto, lentils or mushrooms, or baked into cookies and cakes, polenta's versatility was evident in the dishes that filled a long table and spilled over to a nearby counter.
Moments after the table was filled, more than 100 guests -- some of Italian heritage, but many not -- formed a long line and waited their turn to fill their plates.

Dorothea's House was founded in 1914 as a welcoming place for Princeton's poor immigrant Italian families. Still an integral resource for Italian Americans, it hosts monthly programs, most involving scholarships and Italian culture.

"Once a year we have a program about food," said Alessandra Mazzucato of Princeton. Only one a year because, "I don't want people to think Italty is just about food."
That night is the Polenta Festa, when anyone of any heritage can bring a dish or come to enjoy what others have made.
"That's the beauty of Dorothea's House, that everybody comes here," said Mazzucato, who serves on the board of trustees and initiated the Polenta Festa.
Why polenta? "Because that's what I ate when I was growing up," she said, smiling.




Polenta, in varying forms, has been part of the northern Italian diet for centuries. It was made from other grains or legumes until corn, which is native to the Americas, was introduced in the 1700s.
Since, it has been the Italian version of a cornmeal mush. It is served at lunch and dinner, as a side dish with sauce or vegetables, under stewed meats, in cakes or as breakfast cereal.
That's how Ellie Pinelli of Princeton remembers it. Although her heritage is southern Italian, she said her family and neighbors ate it each morning.
Mazzucato recalls her parents eating their largest meal at noon, then having a bowl of polenta with milk for a simple supper.
For many people, polenta is known only as the log-shaped rolls found in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. But those cooking for the Polenta Festa made it the old-fashioned way, standing over a pot of boiling water, adding the cornmeal and stirring, stirring, stirring until it was cooked.
After that, they ladled or poured it into different shapes, de pending on how it was to be served.
One cook formed the polenta into a thick round the size of a large pizza, with meat and cheese mixed in. Pinelli poured hers by spoonfuls onto wax paper, then layered the discs with onions and mushrooms. Still others poured it into a long pan, and when it cooled, cut it into slices or wedges to use as a base for a dish.
Milena Troiano of Princeton Junction has a cookbook of polenta recipes. Each year she finds another one to try. This year, she made a cake with cognac, walnuts and polenta.
She has family recipes, she said, but, "Every year I like to try something different."
In recent years, polenta has become a favorite of some of the most prestigious chefs who enjoy using it as a palette on which to "paint" their culinary creations. As proof of that, Gilda McCauley of Hillsborough made a Martha Stewart recipe for Almond Polenta Cake that impressed the crowd.
Linda Prospero of Princeton, who also is a member of the board of trustees for Dorothea's House, is still sorting through her mother's polenta recipes. For the festa, she made a personal favorite, Polenta with Parmesan and Crispy Prosciutto, which was quickly scooped up by the guests. This is her recipe:

Polenta with Parmesan and Crispy Prosciutto
1 cup cornmeal 1 cup milk
1 cup water
about 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
2 eggs
1 1/4 cups parmesan, grana padano, or any good sharp grating cheese
dabs of butter
4 or 5 slices of prosciutto, baked in the oven until crisp, and broken into bits
Cook cornmeal with milk and water. Start with cold liquids to avoid lumps. Add, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat, using a whisk at first, then switch ing to a wooden spoon when mix ture thickens. Cook until very thick. Beat eggs with 1 cup of the cheese.
Add eggs to hot polenta mix ture, but not all at once, or you risk scrambling the eggs. The best way to do it is to "temper" the eggs, by adding a little bit of the hot polenta to the eggs, to raise the temperature of the eggs. Add the eggs to the polenta. Pour into a shallow pan that has been sprayed with oil or rubbed with butter. Let cool in the refrigerator until firm.
Using a round biscuit cutter or the rim of a glass, cut the polenta into rounds. Use the odd bits to cover the bottom of a buttered cas serole. Place the rounds pieces of polenta on top, overlapping in one layer. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup of cheese on top, or add more if desired. Place in 450-degree oven for 15 minutes. Add the prosciutto bits on top and bake another 10-15 minutes.
Recipe can easily be doubled.

Gilda McCauley made this recipe from the (www.marthaste wart.com) Web site:
Martha Stewart's Polenta Almond Cake
Makes one 8-inch cake
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds
1/2 cup finely ground polenta
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) un salted butter, room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons melted, for pan
1 cup sugar, plus more for pan
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread sliced almonds in a single layer on a small baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a shal low bowl; set aside to cool. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, finely grind whole almonds; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground al monds, polenta, flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Pour melted butter into an 8-by-2-inch round cake pan, swirling to coat bottom and brushing up sides of the pan. Sprinkle with sugar and toasted sliced almonds; set aside. Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating to combine after each addition. Beat in orange juice and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients, slowly beating just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer baking pan to wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan, and cool completely.


Contact Susan Sprague Yeske at syeske@njtimes.com or (609) 989-5661.

Contact Michael Mancuso at www.michaelmancuso.net