Thanksgiving Cornmeal Cake from the Veneto

Torta di Polenta (Corn Meal Cake)

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It was eight years ago, just a few months after moving to the City, that I experienced my first Manhattan Thanksgiving: ironically, I ended up celebrating the quintessential American holiday at an Italian friend’s home. Daniela had arrived in New York one year before me, and was so smitten with it that she scored higher on the Time Out Magazine test “Are You a Real NewYorker?” than all our American friends. It was her idea to throw an Italian-style Thanksgiving dinner, incorporating the various traditional foods of the holiday into Italian recipes. Given that she is a superb cook, carrying the extraordinary legacy of three different Jewish Italian culinary styles – the Piedmontese, the Venetian and the Ferrarese -  it’s no surprise that the meal was an absolute masterpiece. I had the impression that for the American guests, eating these Italian delicacies instead of the classic turkey with cranberry sauce also felt a little naughty! While I can’t replicate the special atmosphere of that night, after Daniela moved to Israel I adopted her tradition of remembering the Pilgrims with the regional dishes from my own country.

I’m used to cooking around symbolic foods for Passover and Rosh haShana: turkey and pumpkin, the most recognizable Thanksgiving ingredients, also appear on my Rosh HaShana table, and again on Sukkot. The connection with Sukkot runs even deeper, as both holidays are harvest festivals: some historians have gone so far as to trace the roots of Thanksgiving in Sukkot, based on encounters the Pilgrims supposedly had with Sephardic Jews in Holland before they left for the Americas.

But whether or not this story is true, Jews celebrate Thanksgiving Day with an intensity usually reserved to our most sacred holidays: it’s easy for us to empathize with the pilgrims, who had to flee religious discrimination and persecution and travel across an ocean to find freedom – and with their sweat and faith, fought against illness and scarcity, finally turning America’s wilderness into their “Promised Land”.

While the turkey and pumpkin are symbols of bounty, one food on the table is meant to remind us of the harsh winter before the first harvest, when the pilgrims barely had enough to eat. It’s the corn, as it is said that at one point there was so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day. Corn bears a similar type of double-symbolism in Italian history: when it found its way to Italy from the Americas, it immediately spread through the North, and landowners started reaping huge profits by feeding their workers only maize polenta – creamy, delicious and filling, but so poor of vitamins and protein that it caused an epidemic of Pellagra, the same deficiency disease that spread in the American South during the great Depression, leading to deterioration and death. Somehow, native Americans had avoided it because they added wood ashes and lime to cornmeal, correcting its nutritional imbalance.

Cranberries can also be read as a symbol of suffering: of course we combine them with a lot of sugar to make them palatable, but their nature is extremely sour. This reminds me of the symbolism of sweet and sour dishes in Jewish Italian Cuisine, in which the sugar or honey represent the need to appreciate our present and future, while the vinegar or lemon keeps us rooted in our people’s past suffering.

While giving thanks for the plentiful new crop, and the many blessings that we enjoy each year, we also remember those who didn’t make it through that terrible first winter. 
Have a meaningful Thanksgiving!

Ingredients

  • 1 scant cup (150 gr) cornmeal maize (for polenta) or 2 cups cooked polenta (cooked dense, not liquidy)
  • 3 tbsps grappa or brandy
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries (or raisins)
  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup candied fruit (mix of orange and lemon or citron) (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1 organic lemon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1/3 cup of sugar (about 85 gr)
  • 1 scant cup flour (about 100 gr)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp baking powder (10 gr)
  • 1/4 cup oil (mild olive oil , vegetable oil or coconut oil)
  • 2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Prepare the polenta with one scant cup of maize according to instructions on the package, using only about 1 1/4 cup boiling water (traditional polenta tastes better than instant, and you can make it quickly using a pressure cooker… however, instant is OK! Beretta makes a nice product). The polenta has to be on the thick side. 
When cooked, pour it over a large cutting board or platter in a wide and low heap and allow it to cool (feel free to pop it into the fridge).
 Plump the cranberries or raisins in the grappa or brandy. Dice the candied fruit very small. Discard the film that has formed over the polenta. Cut the polenta into pieces and place it into a food processor. Process it with the eggs, salt, sugar, oil, sifted flour with baking powder; add the raisins in their liqueur, the candied fruit, pine nuts, and the lemon zest and mix well. If the batter is so thick that it’s hard to pour into the pan, you can add just a couple of spoonsfuls of water or non-dairy milk.
Grease a 9″ springform pan and dust it with corn meal. If you have parchment, you should line the bottom of the pan before greasing it: this type of batter is very sticky. Pour the mix into it and bake in a pre-heated 400 F oven for about 15 minutes until it forms a golden crust, then lower the heat to 350 and bake for another 30-45 minutes (the cake should bake for 45-60 minutes total). Allow to cool before turning out. Serve warm, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.