Every year, if left unchecked, my herb garden rapidly morphs into my Lemon Balm garden. I seldom use this vigorous, citrusy herb from the Mint family, but I just don’t have the heart to remove it completely – not least because of the clouds of fuzzy bees it attracts in late summer. Plus it supposedly has all kinds of fantastic properties like repelling mosquitoes and calming fevers, so I’ve decided to embrace this versatile herb for a season.
This lemon polenta cake, or to be accurate, lemon corn cake, is gritty and robust with a pleasantly soft toothsome texture. It also serves as a wonderful base for roasted summer fruit compotes (rhubarb is a particular favorite), macerated berries and creamy parfait mixtures, holding the juices brilliantly without dissolving into a mushy mess like cakes of a more delicate demeanor. You can also add finely chopped herbs like rosemary to the cake batter for a fragrant variation.
Serve the syrup on the side so guests can adjust the sweetness/moistness to taste. The extra syrup also makes a fantastic basil lemonade when mixed with seltzer water and a cocktail pick threaded with blueberries and a lemon twist. Happy Summer!
For the Lemon Polenta Cake
4oz (1 stick) butter
1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine salt
3/4 cup medium grind polenta (like Bob’s Red Mill)
2 lemons, zested with a microplane
For the Lemon-Basil Syrup
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 (4- by 1-inch) strip fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
8 large fresh basil sprigs
For the Mascarpone Cream
4 oz mascarpone
6 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp sugar
8 large lemon balm leaves
A few fresh lemon balm springs for garnish
Pestle and Mortar (optional)
To make the lemon-basil syrup, Bring all syrup ingredients to a boil, covered, in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, then remove lid and boil 10 minutes. Pour syrup through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on and then discarding solids. Cool to room temperature and set aside.
To make the cake, preheat oven to 350F. Melt butter and set aside. Grease and flour a 9-in spring-form cake pan. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and polenta. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the eggs and sugar until light, airy and doubled in volume. Briefly beat in the lemon zest.
Fold in half of the dry ingredients and then half of the melted butter. Repeat until everything is incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes. When cake is done, a toothpick poked into the middle should come out clean. Do not worry if the cake seems slighly overbaked, the syrup will soften it up later. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then remove sides of pan, and let cool completely.
To make the mascarpone cream, crush the lemon balm leaves with the sugar using a pestle and mortar. If you don’t have one handy, you can just use the back of a spoon to crush the leaves into the sugar until there are only tiny pieces of green left. Next, place the heavy cream and mascarpone together in a bowl and whip until relatively stiff. Fold in lemon balm sugar mixture, and chill until ready to use.
To serve: place a wedge of polenta cake on a plate with a spoonful of mascarpone cream topped with a lemon balm sprig. Serve the lemon-basil syrup on the side in small jugs or glasses, so everyone can customize how much or little lemony sauce soaks into their polenta cake.