Friday, March 25, 2011

Sweet polenta bread. Are you a purist or not?

Let me just clarify: I am not trying to be fancy. I am not calling this recipe polenta bread instead of plain old corn bread because I want to give myself airs. The truth is I used polenta flour in it and my impression is that it is ground a little coarser than corn meal. I am however not so sure about this anymore, after some research on the Internet. There seem to be very discordant opinions. Some vouch they are exactly the same thing, others say the flour used to make polenta is coarser. Who knows? What matters is that they are pretty interchangeable and so let's just say I called it polenta bread in honor of the country I live in.

Before you read this, I apologize to all corn bread purists. I know to you corn bread is sacred and I will understand perfectly if you skip on to another post with mild annoyance. It has happened to me many a time and a few posts I read this morning got me thinking. How important is it to exactly execute a traditional recipe? Is there a right way to cook something in the world we live in today, where everything is going global and fusion is ever more popular?  In a world where food bloggers are inspiring each other to cook recipes from every corner of the planet, using new ingredients and techniques?

I started thinking about this when I commented on Taste of Beirut's new post. Joumana asked herself why she had never thought of doing something before that saved her lots of time cooking a traditional recipe. My guess is that when you have been taught to do something a certain way, it is so imprinted in your being that it is sometimes hard to think of a simple change that will be helpful and that may seem obvious to someone from another background. Then, when I read Design, Wine & Dine's new post, she mentioned substituting one ingredient for another missing one. Mind you, they are both ingredients that are very much used in that cuisine and I am sure either way, the dish is delicious. But as I read the post after my morning reflections, I couldn't help picturing a Maroccan somewhere tsssk-tsssking because this foreigner had ruined his/her mother's recipe.

Now, I live in a country where tradition is everything. Recipes have been made just so for decades, even centuries. In Italy you cannot even speak of regional cuisine, it is more a local cuisine. I have read endless debates on whether pumpkin ravioli should be made with or without adding amaretto cookie crumbs to the filling. These ravioli are typical of the Mantua area (even this may raise a debate...) and if you move just a few kms north or south the dogma changes. It basically boils down to how your nonna made them. That is the recipe, the only way to make something here.

I think I have already mentioned how Italian men will sit at a restaurant eating a plate of pasta and dissect the recipe, comparing what each of their mothers used when making the same dish. Whole meals are spent talking about food. That is why often it is said that Italian cuisine is one of the best in the world, but that it is a touch too traditional, static. Many of you Italian readers right now are probably thinking your food is so good that there is no need to change it, right?
The complete opposite example is Australia, with its everchanging, innovative cuisine influenced by a variety of cultures and ingredients. It is a reasonably young country and as all things young, it is more open to change.

I will admit to cringing or feeling a little snooty at times when I read how someone cooks a risotto or ruins something as simple as a Caprese. I mean, certain techniques or ingredients were chosen because after years of experimenting they turned out to be the best possible choice for that dish. If something has a name, like the above mentioned Caprese, then why make it with avocado and still call it a Caprese? We all feel that when someone goes and violates something that is a part of our history, our heritage or even simply our family tradition, something we have eaten countless times made that way by someone we love, it is wrong. But then we feel equally free to play around and experiment with recipes from other countries by adding, adjusting or substituting ingredients.

The truth is that sometimes a person with a different cooking experience has a new and fresh take on things and they can teach us that change is not a bad thing. More often than not, change is positive and it is only by experimenting and trying that we can come up with something new and perhaps outstanding.

What do you think? Are you a purist or do you like to be adventurous?

This polenta bread is a sweet version of your typical corn bread. It is perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. You can eat it on its own or spread it with jam. It has a wonderful crumb and is rich and moist. I substituted the cup of milk in the original recipe I found on with 1 cup of ricotta and a 1/3 cup of cream I had in the fridge. I also used olive oil instead of canola oil. I used up all the open dairy products in my fridge and came up with a perfect breakfast.

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal/polenta flour
5 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup ricotta
1/3 cup cream
(you can substitute the 2 above with 1 cup milk)
1/3-cup olive oil (or any other vegetable oil)
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 400° F. Lightly grease a regular-sized baking pan. Sift dry ingredients into mixing bowl (the polenta flour was too course to sift). Form a well in the mixture and add the milk, oil and egg. Stir just until everything is combined, leaving a few scattered clumps of flour. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cornbread starts to brown slightly at the edges and a knife or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or cool, cut into squares. If you don't like things overly sweet, I suggest using 4 tbsp of sugar instead of 5. 


  1. Thanks for the mention and I love the thought provoking topic!!!

    Because I so often "substitute" if need be, I am all for being adventurous in the kitchen...I believe it is how recipes/food/ideas/etc... expands and grow. Taking a "classic" and putting a twist on it is what so many great chefs are doing now a days and how they are pushing the limits of the culinary world.

    That said I also believe that... classics are classics and correct techniques are important to follow. Still...have fun with food and if it tastes good...EAT IT! :)

  2. I am not a purist. I substitute, try different ways, cook off the cuff I guess! It's probably very American of me, or maybe just trying to get through the day of me! :) But I do what works at the time, and what I think tastes good. This bread looks so nice!

  3. Ohhh what a topic for discussion!!! I guess you got the core of the issue perfectly right: you tend to be very traditional with your own country/region/family's food and then get adventurous with something you are less familiar. I think it is normal... if you've grown up enjoying a certain flavor, it is hard to change. It is easier to accept change in new things...
    That's me... very very traditional with Italian cooking (well... like 99.9% of all Italians as you know ;-)) and much more adventurous on other cuisines.

    That said... I also think that if you change a traditional recipe in a major way (like adding avocado to a caprese!!!!!!), then you should give it a different name. There's nothing wrong with experimenting and being creative (I actually think it is GREAT)... just go the extra mile and give it a new name. :-)

  4. I have asked myself these same questions many many times! It sounds like Lebanon has yet one more thing in common with Italy, our men tend to always compare a dish they are served to their mother's version; I remember when I made friends with a man and he would mention his mom' version of a dish being of course the best version, I would cringe. Anyway, I am now all for preserving tradition yet I am for improving on tradition especially when you take into account the fact that people's lifestyle has changed: kibbe, our national dish, used to be made in a stone mortar and pounded for hours. Nowadays, most people in the country use a food processor or a meat grinder.
    So, to get back to this bread, I love polenta and one day checked the texture of polenta against corn meal and noticed a slight difference; I could eat this every morning happily and will make it with my leftover polenta asap.

  5. I love corn bread with polenta! I also like the coarser texture it gives the bread. I liked reading your description of Italian men comparing their meals to their mom's cooking. I am so LUCKY that my mother-in-law hates to cook. My husband appreciates everything I make. It is a marriage made in heaven!

  6. Ah, polenta or corn meal, who cares as long as it tastes good!!! My fave cornbread is made with 1/4 masa flour...I just happened to sub 1/2 of the cornmeal with it for fun, and it turned out delish!!

    Btw, remind me never to date an Italian man. lol.

  7. I'm not a purist, but then, I really can't be. Having diabetes and needing to cook and bake low carb has forced me to get creative and I've come to realize how much great variation is out there.
    That said, sometimes the simple, pure forms can taste the best. Your bread looks "pure" ;)

  8. DD&W - thanks for partially inspiring the post! A Zimmern fan (last sentence?) ;o)
    Nicole - When somedoby travels as much as you do, I think it is quite normal to want to learn about and then extrapolate from many cultures in your cooking. I think it is great that you are taking lessons from an older woman who has so many years of experience. It is then up to you to innovate with your own taste.
    Manu - you perfectly sum up my post, a traditional Italian cook living in Australia and experimenting with new cuisine, like your husband's cuisine of origin.
    ToB - I totally agree with you when yuo write about taking advantage of modern technology to make things that used to take hours. But there are purists in this too: many insist that making pesto in the traditional mortar is the right way because metal blades oxidize the basil leaves... Thanks for the outcome of your cornmeal/polenta comparison, that is what I thought.
    Kelly - that is a match made in heaven ;o)
    Sophia - never heard of Masa flour, must check it out. I have to say I am lucky: my Italian husband's mother is a fabulous old school cook, but he loves pretty much everything I make, even when they are mistakes. He has gladly tasted my attempts at Sicilian recipes and is a very adventurous eater in general. He loves all foods and his favorite dessert is the all-American pecan pie. So I guess mine is a match made in heaven too!
    Carolyn - it is thanks to blogs like yours that people who have no impediments in what they eat can learn to use different and new ingredients to cook things in alternative ways. Thanks for visiting.

  9. So glad to have found ur blog - via Prerna's (Indian Simmer). Lovely writing and recipes and I am yet to try a polenta bread! Loos so good!

  10. wow! Looks great! Best time about polenta (or cornmeal, haha)is that it goes so well with so many flavours.. these sort of remind me of the cornmeal muffins I made last week.

  11. I am like you in that living in a "foreign" country we must find substitutes when making purely American recipes. I, too, have used polenta when making cornbread but wasn't thrilled with the coarseness of the grain. I'll try again now that yours has tempted me. And I love the mentality of the Italians when it comes to food! I think the classics are meant to stay but also meant to be used as the basis for a bit of modernizing, playing around and experimenting.

  12. Hihi! Have just discovered your blog and have had the most divine and sneaky hour working through the archives. I'm all for substituting, within reason. Avocado in capreseon the other hand... that's just heresy.


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