Stop reading now if appearances are important to you. If you dream of mile-high cakes on stately stands. Of fluffy, feathery icing and perfectly proportioned layers.

This is not that kind of cake.

This cake is more akin to your teenage son’s room. To the kids’ bathroom on cleaning day.

It’s the cake you hide in the kitchen while the “cool” cake gets put out for company. It’s the cake Abercrombie & Fitch would sneer at.

polenta cake

And that’s a shame. Because this cake is fantastic. Deeply bittersweet, richly brown, textured by cornmeal (gluten free!) and scented with orange and vanilla — this is a dessert you should be proud to serve at the most casual gatherings and the fanciest soirees.

I first met chocolate pudding cornmeal cake in the pages of Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Italian Country Table. I made it last summer for a friend who was diagnosed with celiac disease.

True confession time … I thought I’d done something wrong when I coaxed this cake out of its pan. Its center sunk in on itself. The sugar and cocoa sprinkled on top before baking never incorporated into the finished confection. The sides seemed crinkly and almost dry.

But when we cut into it, all was right. The cake was rich, chocolaty and almost toothsome in texture (as opposed to the satin finish of flourless chocolate cake). It was particularly good the next morning when we ate it cold from the refrigerator with lots of hot coffee.

Chocolate pudding cornmeal cake takes awhile to make. That’s because you cook the cornmeal into a thick, rich pudding before mixing in the chocolate, orange zest and other ingredients. Figure two hours from start to finish.

But it’s time well spent. This is a dessert guests will ooh and ahh over. They’ll clean their plates. They’ll ask for seconds. They’ll beg you for the recipe.

Appearances aside.

Chocolate Polenta Pudding Cake (Lynne Rossetto Kasper)

Kasper calls for polenta, or coarsely ground cornmeal, in her recipe, but I’ve used medium- and fine-grained cornmeal to marvelous effect. Use whatever you have on hand.

  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup polenta or other cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Make the cornmeal pudding:

Whisk the cornmeal, 1/2 cup sugar and salt in a bowl.

After 40 minutes, you'll have a creamy cornmeal pudding.
After 40 minutes, you’ll have a creamy cornmeal pudding.

In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the bowl holding the cornmeal mixture. Whisk until it’s smooth, then cover the bowl tightly with foil.

Rinse out the saucepan you heated your milk in, and fill it halfway with water. Bring the water to a simmer.

Set the foil-covered bowl over the water and cook for 40 minutes, taking off the foil and whisking the cornmeal mixture every 10 minutes. (Fair warning! The first time you do this, the cornmeal will be very thick. Whisk it slowly and completely, until the mixture is smooth and any lumps are incorporated into the liquid. I like to take the bowl off the simmering water when I do this. Rest assured that the mixture gets smoother and more pudding like the longer it cooks.)

While the cornmeal is cooking, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch springform pan and set it on a rimmed baking sheet.

Assemble the rest of your ingredients:

Bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, orange zest, vanilla and pepper sit ready to go into the cooked cornmeal.
Bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, orange zest, vanilla and pepper sit ready to go into the cooked cornmeal.

Finely chop three-quarters of the bittersweet chocolate. Combine it with the orange zest, the cinnamon and pepper, the egg yolks and the vanilla.

Cut the rest of the chocolate into 1-inch pieces and set them aside.

When the cornmeal is cooked, remove the bowl from atop the water. Add the chocolate mixture (not the 1-inch pieces!) and stir until the chocolate is melted and the batter is smooth. Place 1 cup of this mixture into another bowl and stir the cream into it.

Place the egg whites in a stand mixer and whip them until they’re frothy. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and whip the whites until soft peaks hold. Fold into the non-cream chocolate/cornmeal mixture. Add the 1-inch chocolate pieces and stir very gently.

Pour half of this batter into your prepared pan. Make a well in the center and add the reserved cream mixture. (It will spill over onto the rest of the batter, but that’s just fine.) Top with the remaining batter. Sprinkle with the cocoa and 1 tablespoon sugar.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until a knife inserted at the edge of the cake comes out with moist crumbs on it. Cool the cake for 15 minutes, then gently unmold it from the pan. This is good warm, room temperature or chilled.