from The River Cafe Cookbook

In September, 2006, I ate for the first time at the Anchor & Hope, a gastropub just steps away from the Southwark tube station in London. I was with three friends, Ann, Allison and Lorna. We met for a late lunch, which explains why we were able to be seated relatively quickly. Usually the Anchor & Hope is packed to the rafters. The four of us handled our food choices as all my food friends do: each of us ordered on our own but no one ordered the same thing. When the food arrived, we took two bites and passed the plates on to someone else. The food here was the best restaurant fare I’d had thus far in London. The owner-chefs had left the River Cafe to start their own establishment in much the same way Chez Panisse serves as the nursery for many Bay Area chefs. I’ve lost the notes I took while there, but all four of us came away with one dish etched indelibly on our brains. The polenta cake exceeded all expectations, because we were dubious that any cake made from polenta could be anything but heavy. How wrong we were.

Back in northern California, I started looking through my books and on-line for a recipe that would duplicate the experience. Nothing seemed quite right. In the end, I went straight to the source. I emailed the Anchor & Hope. After about a week, they sent me the recipe by attachment. The attachment turned out to be a digital image someone had taken of two smudged pages in an open cookbook. The page was so obscured by water stains that the quantities of the ingredients had been penned in by hand. I was very touched by the effort someone at the other end had made to supply me with the recipe I desired. For that, they won my loyalty.

The polenta cake recipe looked simple. It was not.

Here’s what they direct you to do:

450 g (1 lb) unsalted butter, softened
450 g (1 lb) caster (baker’s, or ultra-fine) sugar
450 g (1 lb) almond flour
2 tsp good vanilla essence
6 eggs
zest of 4 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
225 g (8 oz) polenta flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325.

Butter and flour a 12-inch cake tin.

Beat the butter and sugar together until pale & light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, and baking powder and salt.

Spoon into the prepared tin & bake in the preheated oven for 45 – 50 mins or until set. The cake will be deep brown on top.

Here’s what happened the first three times I tried it before I succeeded:

The first problem was the pan. A 12-inch cake pan? It occurred to me that I hadn’t ever seen one that size. I have 8-inch and 9-inch pans, but 12? What’s more, I had a hard time finding one that large. I finally tracked one down at jbprince.com for $18. I figured it was worth the investment. Pan problem solved. Ann and I made it once in London in smaller pans. 9-inch pans required considerable more diligence in the cooking time, but it worked.

Almond flour? I looked everywhere before I asked my friends in London where they got theirs. Apparently “almond flour” is another way of saying “ground almonds”. I paid a small fortune for a pound of skinless almonds.

The polenta turned out to be the next issue that needed resolving. Fine polenta? Or stone-ground organic polenta flour? I’ve made it with both and with cornmeal. My preference was for the organic. I enjoyed the crunchy, large granules of the cake crumb. But I suspect this will be a matter of taste for most people.

When we made the cake in London, we decided to increase the amount of zest and that turned out to be a very good move.

Cooking time will vary depending on how how your oven is. It’s worth being patient until the center of the cake is fairly firm. If a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, it’s done.

Last thoughts:

I will make this cake again and probably again. Using the 12-inch pan means it’s a good cake for a large group of people. I’ve served it with sauteed rhubarb reduced with creme de cassis. The ideal accompaniment with the cake is a tart fruit made syrupy in some kind of liqueur and perhaps whipped cream.

I went back to the Anchor & Hope in March, 2007. Ann & Jonathan decided to try out their 4-month old baby’s gastronomic skills in public. The three of us ate an amazing dish of pork from a type of English pig called a Lop. Ava was extremely annoyed at being left out of the feast, so the experiment ended early. A week later at Gordon Ramsey’s sleek, minimalist, expensive tapas restaurant in Grosvenor Square, she felt much more at home. Since then, Ava has taken precosciously to food and expensive restaurants like a food critic in training.