Slowly does it in this wintry world.
That's why I like making polenta: stirring the pot is meditative and warming and allows the cornmeal to swell and fully cook, opening up the sweet corn flavor. Some will argue that baking the polenta frees the cook to move on to other tasks, but I've found that technique yields stiffer, less flavorful results.
There is, however, a happy medium. Start the polenta on the stove and stir constantly for about 20 minutes. Then fold in ricotta cheese and turn the polenta into a baking dish to finish it off in the oven. The cheese melts into the grains, creating a rich, lush texture.
While we associate polenta with northern Italy, the earliest versions were made with various grains — millet, rye, spelt. When Native Americans introduced corn to the Europeans, ground cornmeal became the foundation for this dish. In our country, the term "polenta" is more appealing than its original moniker, corn mush.
Because the primary ingredient in this dish is the cornmeal, make sure to use top quality. Look for stone ground cornmeal because the grinding process retains the hull and germ of the grain. This method gives the polenta its texture and a true corn flavor. I prefer the coarse or medium polenta grinds to the fine grind because they have a pleasing amount of grit. But the fine will work equally well in this dish.
You can find prepared polenta in plastic tubes as well as an instant variety packaged in a box, but these lack the character of real polenta made from scratch. Leftovers, if you have any, are wonderful cut into squares and sizzled off in butter or olive oil. Use them as a base for lasagna or roasted vegetables and cheese. A little effort goes a long way.
Creamy Baked Polenta
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Polenta is really cornmeal mush and can be made with coarse, medium or fine grind cornmeal. What matters most is the quality. Look for stone ground; it yields the best flavor and texture. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 c. medium or coarse ground cornmeal
• Generous pinch salt
• 1/2 c. ricotta cheese
• 2 to 3 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
• 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary, optional garnish
• Freshly ground black pepper, optional garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2- to 3-quart baking dish. In a medium saucepan set over high heat, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Stir in a generous pinch of salt. Pour the cornmeal slowly into the water, stirring with a wire whisk or wooden spoon. Continue stirring as the mixture thickens, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Reduce the heat and cook the polenta, stirring, as it begins to thicken up, adding more water if necessary to keep it soft enough to stir. Once the grains have begun to swell, but still taste "raw" (about 20 minutes), stir in the cheese and turn the polenta into the prepared dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until the grains have fully plumped up, cheese is melted through and the polenta tastes sweet and "cooked," about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and take off the foil. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese, chopped rosemary, and a little coarsely ground black pepper. Return to the oven and continue baking until it develops a light crust. Remove the dish and allow to sit for about 5 minutes before serving.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.