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Surprisingly Sweet Polenta

The word "polenta" conjures up hot, hearty food for a cold winter day. Soft and creamy, or grilled to delicate crispness, this cornmeal mixture can warm both body and soul.

As good as it is for a first course or side dish, polenta also wears a lighter spring hat.

While not as common in the United States, a dessert called amor polenta is common in pastry shops throughout Italy, where I was born and lived until I was 30. This and other polenta-based cakes make lovely spring desserts.

Amor polenta is a soft cake made with fine polenta called fioretto, for which stone-ground cornmeal is a perfectly acceptable substitute. The cornmeal and finely ground almonds provide body, but don't take away the cake's buttery texture.

The nuanced flavor of almonds is intensified by the addition of amaretto, Italian liqueur with a characteristic bittersweet almond taste. While it is baking, amor polenta sends out a delightful aroma, a promise of the pleasure it will provide once it has cooled and has been cut into slices.

In pastry shop windows, amor polenta is easily recognized by its characteristic half-cylindrical shape. Because I bake mine in a loaf pan, it doesn't look quite as pretty, but it tastes just as heavenly.

I think one of the prerogatives of an expatriate — I have lived in the United States for 13 years — is the ability to take liberties with traditional dishes of her homeland without causing an uproar. After hearing recently about a lavender cake, I went to work on a lavender amor polenta.

Had I not been looking for them, I might never have noticed the jar of dried lavender flowers in the spice section of the grocery store. And a food market is where you should look for this ingredient: You want edible lavender, not flowers treated with perfume.

I decided to omit the amaretto in my new take on amor polenta, but I kept all the other ingredients. A tablespoon of the lavender flowers turned out to be just the right balance for the almond flavor — and the amor polenta alla lavanda was born.

Sbrisolona, another Italian polenta dessert, offers a good contrast to the soft amor polenta. Sbriciolarsi is Italian for "to crumble," and unlike amor polenta, this cake has no softness, only crunchy crumbles.

Amor polenta has, among its ingredients, beaten egg whites and baking powder, which produce a soft cake. Sbrisolona, which has neither, is a thin torte that emphasizes the crunchiness of both ground almonds and polenta.

This crumbly cake comes from Mantua, a beautiful city in northern Italy. Sbrisolona was originally a dessert for the poor, made with polenta and lard. It was later adopted by Mantuan nobles and refined by their pastry cooks. They replaced some of the polenta with wheat flour and the lard with butter, then added sugar and almonds.

While amor polenta is easy to slice, sbrisolona will crumble everywhere under the pressure of a blade. It is best to break it with your hands, the same tools you should use to mix the ingredients. You can think of this polenta cake as a spring break of sorts.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: chowders.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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Simona Carini