Gluten free Italian orange polenta cake with a citrus, honey and anise syrup

POlentaOrangeCakeThis is a totally gluten free cake. It’s moist, delicious and makes a fabulous dessert served with cream, crème fraîche or ice cream as well as being a highly eat-able cake. I’ve also made it without baking powder, but rather bicarbonate of soda and vinegar.

It had been a while since I last made a polenta cake, and I really do love them. There is a trend at the moment to make layer cakes as elaborate as possible at home, which are impressive and wonderful (and I’m not adverse to succumbing to this level of showstopping-baking myself when I have the time), but sometimes you just want a really perfect, ‘proper’ old school single layer cake. One that’s so rich it can double as dessert. Yes, I could’ve made a loaf cake or a ‘granny cake’ (as one of my friends refers to cakes like cherry and Dundee) but I referred to an old Italian recipe I’ve had for years. I had just dragged a (reusable) bag full of lovely-looking oranges and lemons back from the greengrocers so it seemed fortuitous to make one. As I’m prone to playing about with standard recipes, I thought I’d ‘up’ the syrup a little by adding in the anise and honey.

For anyone interested in the chemistry of baking, I have substituted the customary baking powder for bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. I felt this was more authentic to the base vintage Italian recipe – at the time this was noted down baking powder was not available, or at least a rarity. Bicarb and vinegar produce the chemical reaction needed to raise your cake: traditionally baking powder is bicarb + cream of tartar (or substitutes). As long as you have the right ratio this soda and acid combination will do the trick of chemical leavening. Follow my recipe as I’ve written it and it will work, or alternatively just use 1 teaspoon baking powder and omit the soda and vinegar.

Notes

Makes a 20cm cake, so enough for eight very hungry people or ten more typically-indulgent diners.

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • Citrus zester/microplane and juice squeezer
  • 20cm cake tin with a loose bottom, greased and lined with baking parchment
  • Food processor
  • Heavy based medium saucepan
  • Skewer

Ingredients

  • Unsalted butter – 220g
  • Caster sugar – 220g
  • Ground almonds – 130g
  • Fine polenta – 150g
  • Bicarbonate of soda – 1/2 teaspoon
  • Cider or white wine vinegar – 2 teaspoons
  • Blanched (ie skinless almonds) – 60g
  • Eggs, large – 3
  • Orange zest – zest from 1 orange

Ingredients for the syrup

  • Lemon juice – juice from 1 fresh lemon (minus pips!)
  • Orange juice – juice from 2 fresh oranges (minus any pips too!)
  • Orange – one orange sliced thinly and any pips removed
  • Honey – 1 tablespoon of your choice of honey
  • Star anise – 1 whole pod

Plus a few rosemary flowers to decorate

Method

  1. Put the oven on to 180C fan / 190C conventional
  2. Whip the butter and sugar together until fluffy and lightened in colour
  3. Whizz up the blanched almonds in your food processor – you want them in small pieces but not as fine as the ground almonds (doesn’t matter if a bit of it becomes very fine)
  4. Add the ground almonds and your chopped/processed almonds, polenta and bicarbonate of soda and fold together
  5. Now add the vinegar and orange zest and fold again
  6. You must now act fairly quickly – do not walk off between the last step and getting the cake in the oven, as the vinegar and bicarb will be already starting to react
  7. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top over as level as possible
  8. Pop straight into the oven for 30 minutes
  9. After 30 minutes,  turn down the temperature to 150C fan / 170C conventional and bake for about another 30 minutes (test after 20 minutes), until the cake is firm but not solid (it shouldn’t spring back quite as much as a ‘normal’ sponge cake but will have a little bounce)
  10. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin
  11. Prepare the syrup by placing the sliced oranges in the bottom of the saucepan and covering with the orange and lemon juice and pop in the star anise pod
  12. Turn the hob up to a medium-high heat
  13. After a minute or two, add the honey – the reason I say to wait is that because the juice is now warm and it will be easier to put the honey in. The heat will allow the honey to slide cleanly off the spoon
  14. Turn up to allow the liquid to boil and let it boil for 2 – 3 minutes until it is reduced
  15. Remove the orange slices and leave to cool on a plate for a minute or two
  16. Remove the star anise pod and discard
  17. Spike some holes in the cake (all over the top) with a skewer to allow the syrup to sink into the cake
  18. Pour half of the syrup onto the cake, allowing it to drain into the holes
  19. Arrange the orange slices on the top of the cake and pour over the rest of the syrup
  20. Add the rosemary flowers if using
  21. Once the cake is cooled, remove from the tin
  22. Serve as you would any other cake or turn it into a delicious dessert by serving with a generous helping of ice cream (or should that be gelato?), crème fraîche or clotted cream
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