Strawberry Polenta Cake
With Strawberry & Black Pepper Sauce
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This post is brought to you in collaboration with California Strawberries, who have financially compensated me to produce this recipe.
All opinions are my own.
I struggled a little trying to put into words just what it is about this delicious cake that makes it so special. Is it the buttery, dense, crumbly (and gluten-free) texture you get from the almonds and cornmeal? Is it the fragrant lemon zest, bright on the palate? Is it the sweet, soft strawberries cooked into the cake? Is it the unique combination of black pepper and sweet strawberries? Well sure, it’s all of those things – but that only takes us as far as the sum of the parts. The combination of flavours is something that I’m tempted to describe poetically; a strange and delightful alchemy. But, as I sit here, eating another slice for ‘inspiration,’ I think the truth is much more interesting – it’s science.
Back in my early university days I would often hop off campus to hit up a little Italian restaurant and to fill in the gap in my schedule between afternoon labs and a late-evening class. They had cheap pasta specials and free bread – perfect for a hungry and generally-broke student. It was mostly average fare, but there were some flashes of brilliance to be found on the menu. One particular dessert jumped out at me in the most memorable and impactful of ways. I still remember staring at the name, printed on a little sheet of paper and slipped into the plastic dessert menu standing on the restaurant table top: fragole al pepe. Strawberries with pepper. It sounded crazy, and yet it somehow made sense. Strawberries and black pepper are both memorable and evocative foods, distinct and memorable enough to be called to memory easily even when they’re not on the plate in front of us. I remember closing my eyes and imagining the combination. I felt like I could taste the two together – at least to the extent that one can ‘taste’ an imaginary food. Somehow, I knew that it would work – though I couldn’t say why. I felt compelled to try it – not because it was odd, but because I wanted to experience and understand it.
That extraordinary, unexpected combination was one of a handful of recipes and experiences that really got me interested in exploring the diversity of food. I wasn’t a very experienced cook at the time, but I was smack-dab in the middle of taking organic chemistry, and the world of complex aromatic chemicals was opening me up to all kinds of ideas. Scent is, in many regards, the most important aspect of taste. Our tongues can only taste 5 different flavours (salt, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami), which means that most of the nuance and complexity we think of as ‘flavour’ is actually connected to our ability to detect different the distinctive and varied aromas present in our food. Black pepper and strawberries might seem like the least likely of culinary companions at first, but their distinctive and highly aromatic chemical profiles pair up in a way that defies explanation (despite my best efforts).
I wish I could explain a simple reason that these two seemingly disparate ingredients work so well together, but I doubt there’s an easy answer to be had. Whether we love foods or loathe them is dictated by the way our nervous systems interact with their maddeningly complex and highly individual chemical signatures. It can be difficult to predict what we will or won’t like – and even harder to understand why we like certain combinations. Sometimes the boldest and most powerful of flavours can partner beautifully, while other combinations can fail spectacularly. Strawberries and pepper? An incredible dessert! Pepper and mustard? Amazing on a roast! Mustard and strawberries? I’m going to steer clear of that slice of the Venn diagram, thanks. There are some interesting efforts to use biochemistry to identify potentially compatible ingredients, and while those are fascinating (and useful), there’s a lot of complexity to wade through. Nearly 70 different compounds have been identified as contributors to the fragrance of a strawberry, and many of these are found in other foods as well. Does identifying which of these compounds are shared by other foods guarantee that they’ll partner well with strawberries? Well… no, not exactly. But the exploring the shared chemistry of our foods may help us understand things that we otherwise process at a subconscious, primarily sensory level. Both strawberries and black pepper produce the aromatic compound d-limonene, for example. That compound is most strongly associated with the scent of oranges, but if you told someone that strawberries and pepper go together because they both smell like oranges, they’d look at you like you were crazy. The interaction is much more complex than that, and the various factors are difficult to disentangle. These two foods produce incredible and tantalizing aromas (and, as a result, tastes) in abundance, and these aromas happen to line up in a way that is simultaneously pleasing and surprising to our brains. We might not be able to put it into words, but we can still understand it by through experience.
Ultimately, I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is to take risks with your food. If you’ve read about an unusual flavour pairing recommendation, or your gut is telling you to try mixing two ingredients together, or your kid insists that soy sauce does in fact go great with apples (sigh), you might as well go for it. Life is short – go on a food adventure.
Strawberries Are Awesome
When the opportunity to work with California Strawberries came up, I knew right away that I’d have no trouble coming up with a recipe. I feel like strawberries are one of the easiest fruits to love. They’re instantly recognizable, wonderfully distinctive, and easy to work with (or, you know, just eat out of the container). But we don’t have to linger on qualitative platitudes; there are plenty of fascinating empirical reasons to adore strawberries. Need to get more servings of fruit into your diet? Eight California Strawberries (about 140 g) works out to a single serving, and let’s be honest folks, that’s one of the easiest servings of fruits or vegetables that you’re ever going to incorporate into your diet. Honestly, I generally have to buy extra strawberries before making a given recipe to account for all the snacking I’m going to do while I cook. Fortunately, whether you’re snacking or cooking (or both), they’re a ridiculously healthy fruit to eat. That same single serving of California Strawberries has a whopping 140% of your daily Vitamin C (more than you’d find in the same serving size of oranges, believe it or not), and is also a good source of dietary fiber. But the thing that always amazes me the most is the fact that our single serving clocks in at about 50 calories. Don’t be surprised if that number seems low to you; the sweetness of a strawberry isn’t simply dictated by its sugar content.
As I mentioned in my recent strawberry ice cream recipe, the diverse biochemical cocktail responsible for the distinctive aroma of strawberries has an amazing effect on our sense of taste. Basically, it convinces our brains that strawberries are sweeter than their sugar content would suggest. While our tongues are primarily responsible for detecting sweetness and sugars, they don’t hold a monopoly on the taste. Certain scents and flavours can boost or diminish our perception of sweetness without ever changing the sugar content in a food. Strawberries manage to seem very sweet to us, despite being much lower in sugar than many other fruits (they have less than half the sugar you’d find in an equivalent serving of apple or banana, for example). That irresistible and unmistakable strawberry fragrance acts somewhat like a neurological sweetener, convincing our brains that the sugars taste even sweeter than they actually are. It’s a dessert-lover’s dream come true: extra sweetness without extra sugar. The principle is used to great effect with this recipe; the strawberry sauce only has 1/4 cup of added sugar (1 tsp per serving) – far less than you’d many comparable fruit sauce/syrup recipes.
If you’re new to making this kind of cake, rest assured that it’s pretty simple. If you’ve worked with these ingredients before you can skip through most of this, but there are some notes about the basic cake ingredients and how to use/substitute for them. It is worth noting a few differences between this cake and a flour-based one, so I’ll go into that in a bit of detail. Likewise, I’ll provide a few tips related to tweaking the strawberry sauce to your personal tastes.
Polenta, Cornmeal & Corn Flour
As is so often the case with these things, we’ve got a bit of nomenclature to deal with. This cake is made without any wheat flour, and instead relies on the aforementioned almonds and finely ground dried corn to form the crumb of the cake. This ground corn is produced and sold in a number of formats and under a variety of names, so it’s worth sorting things out here.
Let’s start with polenta (since it’s in the title of the recipe). The word polenta is more accurately used to refer to a dish made from cooked corn meal, but you’ll often encounter Italian-style corn meal sold as polenta (in English anyway). In Italian, the ground corn itself will be sold as farina di mais (or farina di granturco di mais). The term polenta has effectively jumped into English under a broader definition than was intended in the original Italian. Products labeled as polenta in Italy are generally pre-cooked/instant products, though you will see the term ‘per polenta‘ (for polenta) on packaging for non-instant products too. Uncooked polenta comes in a variety of textures, from quite fine to a relatively coarse grind, depending on the intended use (more on this in a minute). If you’re going to do your shopping at an Italian market, make sure you know what you’re reading, and ask someone for help if you think you might be looking at an instant product.
The term cornmeal is somewhat generic, used to refer to any relatively finely ground, untreated dried corn product. Corn flour is a confusing term, unfortunately. In the USA and Canada, it’s used to refer to very finely ground cornmeal – i.e. a flour made from corn. Unfortunately, the refined product that we North Americans call corn starch is called ‘cornflour’ in the UK and Ireland. It’s very important to note that corn starch is NOT the same thing as finely ground cornmeal, and cannot be used here. Cornmeal is quite commonly available in North America, and can often be found in the self-serve bulk bins of grocery stores.
Both cornmeal and polenta are made from ground, untreated dried corn. Corn can be treated with a basic (high pH) solution in a process called nixtamalization, which improves the nutritional quality of the grain. This ancient process is used to create the corn product hominy, which is ground to produce grits and masa harina (the corn flour used to make tortillas, etc.). Nixtamalized corn behaves very differently from untreated corn, and should not be used in this recipe.
You can use cornmeal and uncooked polenta interchangeably, but do take note of the coarseness of the grind. Italian corn meal comes in a variety of grinds, from coarse to fine. I use a medium/fine grind here, which is fairly interchangeable with the most commonly found cornmeal types available in North America. You can use a more coarsely ground cornmeal for a more crumbly texture in the cake, but I would recommend measuring by weight rather than volume if you do. Aim for about 3.5 oz (100 g). You can get away with using corn flour (again, that’s the North American term – I’m NOT talking about corn starch), but its much finer texture will make the cake a bit pastier and less crumbly.
To summarize, you can use cornmeal, or any dried, uncooked product sold as ‘polenta.’ You can use corn flour if you must, but the cake texture might become a bit pasty. You can also use coarsely ground cornmeal (or polenta) but your cake might have a more crumbly/chunky crumb (though this could be mitigated by using a more finely ground almond flour). Do NOT use corn starch, precooked polenta, or any hominy-based/nixtamalized corn products like grits or masa harina.
Working with the Almonds
If you’ve got a food processor, high-powered blender, or spice grinder (or a big mortar and pestle, if you don’t mind hands-on work) I really recommend grinding whole almonds to make your own almond meal. It adds a few extra minutes and some more dishes, but you get a wonderfully fresh almond flavour and you have more control over the texture of the almond pieces. Plus this gives you the option of working with blanched (as I did) or skin-on almonds, as your own tastes dictate. If you do go this route you might want to make sure you have a few extra almonds handy, as there always seem to be a few bits and pieces that don’t want to grind small enough. I used my high-speed blender but ended up finished off all of the pesky little chunks with my spice grinder (which is a tool I adore, for the record). I know a lot of people seem to love blenders for this kind of work – and they do work well – but don’t go crazy trying to get the last few big crumbs broken down, or you risk accidentally making almond butter.
If you are planning to use pre-ground almonds, you might be wondering what the difference is between almond meal and almond flour. Well, frustratingly, it’s not exactly a consistent thing. Almond meal is often (but not always) made with unblanched almonds (i.e. those with the skin left on), but you can find blanched versions too. Almond flour is generally more finely ground, and usually make with blanched almonds – but again, there’s not hard and fast rule here. You should be fine with either product here. If you’re using a finer almond flour, you might prefer to use a slightly coarser cornmeal/polenta (and vice versa).
If you do use pre-ground almond meal (or almond flour), try to make sure it’s as fresh as possible. If you’ve got some in the cupboard make sure it hasn’t become overly stale or rancid. It should smell sweet, mild, and nutty, and it shouldn’t have any ‘off’ or stale notes.
Getting the Cake Right
As with most baking, I do recommend using weights rather than volumes for your dry measurements. The amount of air in a product can really throw off volume-based measurements, so you get more consistent results when you rely on a kitchen scale. I’ve given the most accurate numbers that I can provide in either case, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble sorting things out regardless.
There are a couple of points that are worth being aware of before you make this cake. First, the batter will be VERY thick. Second, the cake will still look a little soft and unset even when it’s fully cooked – especially in comparison with a wheat flour cake. As long as a cake tester is coming out clean and the cake isn’t too jiggly looking you should be fine. If you do end up overcooking the cake it might end up a little on the dry side, but you’ve got some leeway thanks to the strawberry syrup that’s brushed on at the end. A little extra syrup can help to rescue a cake with an overly dry crumb.
I always line my tins with parchment paper in order to make it easier to get the cakes out, so I don’t generally feel the need to use springform pans. That being said, if you do have a springform pan, this is definitely a good recipe to use it with, as the dense, crumbly texture of the cake makes it a bit tougher to turn out and handle. I specify a 9 inch pan in the instructions, but you can get away with anything from an 8 inch to a 10 inch pan (just make sure to adjust your cooking times – the smaller the pan, the longer the cook time). An 8 inch pan will be VERY close to overflowing during the baking process (trust me), so you’ll want to put a pan underneath it.
How Much Pepper Should I Use?
Are you intrigued by the idea of combining strawberries and black pepper, but a little bit worried that it might be too strong for you? No worries – I’ve got a few tips for modifying the recipe to individual tastes.
If you don’t make any changes, you’ll get a strawberry sauce with a distinctive and instantly recognizable black pepper punch. It’s not spicy mind you – it’s just got that recognizable pungent pepper taste. I should note, however, that the syrup that you’ll brush the cake with has less of this pepper flavour than the strawberries themselves, meaning that the cake will only take on a subtle peppery essence. My kids, who are not big on black pepper, adored the cake, but found the sauce itself a bit overwhelming.
If you want to soften the pepper punch a little, you can cut the quantity of peppercorns to 3/4 tsp. You could even try halving the quantity of pepper, but you might find it tougher to pick out the flavour. Nonetheless, it will still have a lovely impact on how you perceive the taste and aroma of the strawberry sauce, which might be just what you’re looking for. I personally love black pepper, so I might lean into the flavour a bit more. If you’re cooking for varied palates (and you’re the accommodating sort) you can provide a pepper grinder on the table for anyone looking to add a bit more pepper punch.
How you grind the pepper will also have an impact on the recipe. I used a mortar and pestle to create medium/coarse, somewhat uneven mix composed of a fine powder with lots of uneven little chunks. This allows the pepper flavour to infuse subtly in the sauce while also providing little ‘hits’ of more powerful pepper flavour in individual bites. The more finely you grind the pepper, the more evenly the flavour will infuse with the strawberries. Go with whatever method appeals most to you. Interestingly, I found that the black pepper flavour was more distinctive in the strawberry sauce when it was cold, rather than warm or at room temperature.
It’s important to use good quality, freshly ground black pepper in this recipe. If you’ve got an ancient pepper shaker kicking around, I’d give it a pass and get some new, whole peppercorns. Many of the important scent and flavour compounds found in black pepper fade significantly after grinding. This is important to note, because while the fiery bite of pepper (derived from the chemical piperine) tends to last in ground pepper for a reasonable amount of time, the various compounds that contribute citrusy, piney, and floral aromas are more likely to fade fast, and these are every bit as important. On the same note, you’ll want to avoid white pepper, as it lacks the outer black layer with its complex tastes and aromas, proffering a more uniform heat profile (and, in some cases, a somewhat farm-y scent that we’re not really looking to capture here).
If you’re digging the idea of the strawberry polenta cake, but not too sold on the black pepper, don’t worry – this is still a fantastic cake recipe without the black pepper. You can omit it entirely if you like – though I would recommend having a little bit of pepper on hand to try at the end, just to get a sense of how these flavours work together. If you’re looking for an equally bold alternative, try drizzling a little good balsamic vinegar over the finished cake instead, as it too acts as a fantastic flavour-boosting accompaniment to ripe, red strawberries.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single slice, including strawberry sauce (1/12th portion of the total recipe).
California Strawberries have lots of Vitamin C, and the whole recipe is quite low in sugar (especially for a dessert!). It’s also dense and filling, so a single serving goes a long way.
Butter and eggs in the cake make for a fairly high saturated fat content.
This is definitely a filling dessert, so the easiest way to trim the fat/calorie count a little is to serve a smaller slice with lots of extra California Strawberries.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Strawberry Polenta Cake with Strawberry & Black Pepper Sauce
- 1 cup butter at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup fine polenta or finely ground cornmeal (see note)
- 7 oz blanched almonds (~1.25 cups) (see note for pre-ground substitution)
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 5 oz strawberries thinly sliced
Strawberry & Black Pepper Sauce
- 1 lb strawberries hulled and halved
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp black peppercorns coarsely ground (see note)
Strawberry Polenta Cake
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
- Line an 9 inch cake pan (or spring-form pan) with parchment paper, and grease the sides with a bit of butter.
- Grind the almonds with a food processor (or spice grinder, or blender) until they form an even, somewhat coarse crumb. Set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.
- Combine the ground almonds, corn meal, baking powder, and salt. Mix about 1/3 of the mixture into the butter and sugar, followed by one egg. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients and eggs, mixing thoroughly as you go.
- Fold the lemon zest and sliced strawberries into the batter.
- Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 50 minutes.
- Check the doneness of the cake - a cake tester or toothpick should emerge fairly clean, and the sides should have browned and pulled away from the cake pan somewhat. If the cake isn't quite set enough, return it to the oven for 5 minutes or so. Note that this cake might a bit soft and jiggly even when fully cooked, as the lack of wheat flour gives it less structure than a conventional cake.
- Set the finished cake on a rack to cool, but leave it in the tin. Prepare the strawberry and black pepper sauce while the cake cools.
Strawberry and Black Pepper Sauce
- Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan on the stovetop over medium heat. Stir to keep things from scorching.
- Cook the mixture until the strawberries are very soft (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and pour into a strainer to separate the solids from the syrupy strawberry/lemon juice. You'll use the juice to brush the cake (see 'To Serve' below).
- Prick the surface of the cake all over with a cake tester or small skewer.
- Brush about 1/2 cup of the the warm strawberry syrup over the top of the cake. Allow the cake to cool again. Mix any remaining syrup back in with the strawberries.
- Gently remove the cooled cake from the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with strawberry and black pepper sauce. Dust with a little icing sugar, if you like.