Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.
In my case, I always do. I’m the person who won’t even dive into a box of See’s candies unless it’s “nuts and chews.” For me, it’s M&M’s with nuts all the way. And I can happily munch on almonds by the handful, day or night.
This is a cake that appeals to nutty folks like me.
“Polenta Cake with Brutti Ma Buoni Topping” is from “Mozza At Home” (Knopf), of which I received a review copy. It’s the newest cookbook by Nancy Silverton, the chef who helped kick-start the modern-day artisan bread revolution. She’s also the chef/co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and Chi Spacca, all in Los Angeles.
As Silverton writes in the book, this cake is the happy marriage of a classic polenta cake, and a traditional meringue and nut cookie called brutti ma buoni, which means “ugly but good.”
Personally, I prefer “distinctive” over “ugly” because I think that’s what this bumpy-topped cake is, owing to a profusion of almonds and hazelnuts mixed with egg white, honey, vanilla and orange flower water that’s strewn over the cake before it finishes baking.
The cake, itself, based on a recipe by Pastry Chef Claudia Fleming, is moist, tender and dense. Its taste is redolent of marzipan and floral, rounded orange.
Serve it with coffee or tea. Or even a shot of Grand Marnier.
The cake is best the day it is made. But it can be stored, covered, for a couple of days, though, the nut topping will start to lose some of its full-on crunchiness.
With this cake, you enjoy a mouthful of crunchy, toasty, sweet nuts in every bite. In fact, the layer of nuts is almost as thick as the cake, itself. For nutty folks like myself, it doesn’t get better than that.
Polenta Cake with Brutti Ma Buoni Topping
(Serves 8 to 12)
For the Topping:
1 cup slivered blanched, skinless almonds
1 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon honey (preferably wildflower, or another neutral-flavored honey)
1 teaspoon orange flower water
1 extra-large egg white
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Cake:
Nonstick cooking spray
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus 1/4 cup for dusting
1/4 cup cake flour
1/4 cup almond meal (also called almond flour)
2 tablespoons medium-ground cornmeal or polenta
4 extra-large egg whites
To make the topping, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Spread the almonds and hazelnuts in two distinct sections of the same large baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they are golden brown and fragrant, 12 to 15 minutes, gently shaking the baking sheet and rotating it from front to back halfway through the cooking time so the nuts brown evenly. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and set it aside until the nuts are cool enough to touch. Gather the hazelnuts into a clean dish towel and rub them together inside the towel to remove the skins. Discard the skins and transfer the almonds and hazelnuts to a bowl and set aside.
Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Put the sugar, honey, orange flower water, egg white, vanilla, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and stir with a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine the ingredients. Add the almonds and hazelnuts and stir to coat the nuts in the syrup. Set aside.
To make the cake, spray the inside of a 13 3/4-by4 1/4-inch tart pan with a removable bottom generously with nonstick cooking spray and place it on a baking sheet.
Warm the butter without stirring in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until the bubbles subside and the butter is dark brown with a nutty, toasty smell, swirling the pan occasionally so the butter browns evenly and doesn’t burn. Turn off the heat and set the butter aside to cool to room temperature.
Put the confectioners’ sugar, cake flour, almdon meal, and cornmeal in a large bowl, and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the egg whites and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon to incorporate them. Stir in the brown butter.
Pour the batter into the prepared tart mold and bake it for 30 minutes, rotating the cake from front to back halfway through the baking time. Remove the cake from the oven. Using your fingers, quickly distribute the nut topping by crumbling it over the surface of the cake, allowing bits of cake to peek through lacy nut clusters. Return the cake to the oven for 20 minutes, until the nut topping is golden brown, rotating the cake halfway through the cooking time so the topping browns evenly. Remove the cake from teh oven and set aside to cool to room temperature.
To serve, pour the remaining confectioners’ sugar for dusting into a fine-mesh strainer and tap the strainer over the cake to dust it lightly. Gently push the removable bottom to lift the cake out of the pan, and using a long offset spatula, gently slide the cake from the metal bottom onto a long platter or pretty wooden cutting board (or you can simply put the cake, still on the metal bottom, on the platter or board). Serve the cake with a cake spatula or knife for guests to cut the size serving they want and serve themselves.
From “Mozza At Home” by Nancy Silverton
More Nancy Silverton Recipes to Enjoy: Chai Chocolate Chip Cookies
And: Nancy’s Pizza Dough