One of my favorite cooking jokes goes something like this:
A woman is planning a very fancy dinner party. Wanting to really impress her guests with her culinary abilities she searches her cookbooks for a main dish that will truly wow them. She finds an incredibly elaborate recipe that involves a drawn out process of mincing ham, combining lots of ingredients, glazing with aspic and moulding and she gets started. Confident that this is going to be a killer dinner she lays out an elegant table, has her hair done, and puts on her expensive dress purchased just for the evening. One half hour before the guests are due she gets out a silver serving platter for the final step of the recipe - unmoulding. As her creation slips onto the platter and sits, quivering, she wails out in horror to her husband, "Oh, no! Harold, I've made Spam!"
This sums up my fear of making something new from a cookbook with no pictures. In a perfect cookbook every entry would have a picture, so you know what you're making. If it looks gross, don't bother making it. I figure, if a professional food stylist can't make it look appealing, why should I waste my time trying? Also, then you have the pictures that call you back again and again, like a siren song, luring your diet to destruction.
If you've read my blog before you know I think Dorie Greenspan's Baking is pretty close to perfect. But, it does have a picture shortage. The recipes pictured are gorgeous, but not every recipe has a picture to go with it. So it was going out on a limb, spiritually holding Drrie's hand, to make a new recipe for something I'd never tried before with no picture to illuminate the way.
I had just made homemade ricotta cheese and was cruising through my cookbooks looking for a way to use it when I chanced on the Fluted Polenta and Ricotta Cake recipe. I had on hand all the ingredients except figs, always a good sign, so I gave it a try with mostly positive results.
My ricotta and water mixture never got smooth. Perhaps because it was homemade ricotta, the mixture stubbornly retained small lumps. I shrugged and moved on. About 20 minutes after the cake was in the oven I checked and it was overflowing the pan! Thank goodness Dorrie told me to put it on a baking sheet or my oven would have been a mess. Then, it was not nearly close to done at 35 minutes and I cooked it at least 10 minutes longer. At this point I was checking and rechecking the recipe and having quite a mental conversation with Dorie.
Once I took it out and trimmed off the excess that burbled over the sides, it was lovely. The texture was coarse but incredibly moist and it's bursting with honey flavor and sweetness. My husband was impressed that I tried something new that didn't even involve chocolate and really likes it, although he said he'd prefer to have the dates cut into small pieces and scattered more evenly throughout the cake.
Polenta and Ricotta Fig Cake
About 16 moist, plump dried Mission or Kadota figs, stemmed
1 cup medium-grain polenta or yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup ricotta
1/3 cup tepid water
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
2 large eggs
Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Butter a 10-1/2-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom and put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat. (Don't skip this step!)
If your figs are the least bit hard, put them in a small pan of boiling water and steep for a minute, then drain and pat dry. If the figs are larger than a bite-size, snip them in half.
Whisk the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt together.
Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the ricotta and water together on low speed until very smooth. With the mixer at medium speed, add the sugar, honey and lemon zest and beat until light. Beat in the melted butter, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until the mixture is smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are fully incorporated. You'll have a sleek, smooth, pourable batter.
Pour about one third of the batter into the pan and scatter over the figs. Pour in the rest of the batter, smooth the top with a rubber spatula, if necessary, and dot the batter evenly with the chilled bits of butter.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. The cake should be honey brown and pulling away just a little from the sides of the pan. Transfer the cake to a rack and remove the sides of the pan after about 5 minutes. Cool to warm, or cool completely.