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Lemon polenta cake (or early spring cabin fever)

March 12, 2011


I’m trying to appreciate late winter and all that goes with it in Vermont. In the last week, we’ve had 32 inches of snow (in one storm), four days of rain, and this morning I woke to 42 degrees, sunny, and snowing all at the same time. I’m not sure how this last weather event is possible, but nonetheless, I’m here to certify that it happened. This is the time of the year when cabin fever starts to make us all a little crazy. So I’m here to tell you why it’s possible to love this time of year. And then I’ll tell you about the cake that makes it feel a little more like spring.


In deep winter, very little light makes it into our house. The morning light that floods our kitchen in the spring, summer and fall angles low in the sky in deep winter, gracing us with only a few minutes of light each morning. However, this is the time of year when it starts to linger across our kitchen table. Breakfast is often bathed in sunlight, a welcome balm as the wood stove slowly brings warmth back to the house after being banked for the night. Our living room gets the light later into t he evening as well- something no one takes advantage of better than our kitty.

Late winter light

Morning kitchen light

Maizy sunning

Afternoon nap


The winter here can be so quiet, especially after a snow. Sound is muffled when everything is enclosed in ice. But when we get our first rains, if it rains hard enough, the creeks and streams start to run fast. This sounds like a distant roar, background to all the drama of this season. The dripping of snow off the wood pile, the melting of icicles on the roof , and the sound of rain drumming on the deck are all liquid reminders that all this snow will shortly be replaced by bulbs and new spinach coming up in the garden.



One of the things I always appreciate after the deepest winter has passed is how the earth softens. A walk up my dirt road in deep winter is like walking on pavement- hard, unyielding, rigid. But in late winter, after those first rains, it all softens a bit. There’s a spring to the earth that I’d never notice in the summer when there’s so much else to appreciate. But after the brittle cold and ice of winter, that little give to the surface of the road feels like spring. This comes shortly before spring mud. Vermonters love to talk about mud season and how hard it can be. But I don’t mind this at all because it is the start of everything coming back to life.

Lemon polenta cake
Tea and cake

Despite all this, true spring is still a long way off. Spinach and asparagus and strawberries are months away and we’ll get many more inches of snow before winter finally bows out. So we’re doing what we can food-wise to plow through the wild-eyed cabin fever. This lemon cake helped quite a bit. It’s featured in Nigel Slater’s website under spring recipes– maybe he has some cabin fever, too? Regardless, the lemon flavor is intense and zingy both in the cake as well as in the frosting. It’s a great way to wake up those taste buds after winter stews and roots.

Lemon Polenta Cake

Adapted from Nigel Slater. Instructions were less detailed than I’d like in Nigel’s version of this recipe- fine for cooking which I’m more comfortable with, but not so much for baking. He suggests a 20cm (7.9 inch) cake pan but I only have a 9″. This makes the difference between being able to cut this cake into two layers and not. I’d suggest doubling the recipe and using two separate layers if you likewise have a 9″ cake pan. Regardless, this is my adaptation.

I did not translate this into cups from Nigel’s grams, mostly because Gluten Free Girl’s recent post has convinced me that baking by weight is vastly superior to baking by volume. However, I did not measure at all when I mixed up the frosting, so I estimated the ratio I used in cups. Inconsistent? Yes. It’s taking my brain a while to adapt!

For the cake:

  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 110g. white sugar
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 50g. cornmeal
  • 30g. almond meal (or almonds, finely ground in a food processor)

For the frosting:

  • 3/4c. lemon curd (I used this recipe but you could use store-bought if you like)
  • 3/4c. heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour a 9″ cake pan (I usually use sweet rice flour for this). Separate eggs. Whisk yolks with sugar in a standing mixer on high speed until they’re thick and pale yellow in color. Grate the lemon zest with a microplane grater and squeeze the juice. Add the juice to the egg yolks and sugar, a little bit at a time, and beat on medium high speed for two or three minutes. Add zest, cornmeal, and almond meal and stir with a rubber spatula to combine.

In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Then gently fold egg whites into the cake batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 25 minutes. The top will brown a bit and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean when done. Let cool for five minutes or so and then turn out onto a cake rack to cool completely.

Beat the whipping cream in a clean bowl until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the lemon curd into the cream, adding more or less lemon curd depending on how lemony you’d like your frosting. If you have two cake layers, spread half the frosting on the first layer and gently place the second layer on top. Spread the remaining frosting on the top and ease it around the sides. (Mine was obviously just one layer and generously iced!) I had mine with Earl Grey tea and it was a perfect mid-morning snack.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011 2:38 pm

    This sounds wonderful, always looking for things to do with lemon juice.

  2. Sara permalink
    March 13, 2011 10:12 pm

    I LOVE Nigel Slater (Guardian, right?). And I love this recipe, especially since I can do it without changing it for the high altitude. Yum!

    And on another note, I just gave up all nuts for Lent. This was because of my obsession with almond and cashew butter and the massive amounts I was eating…so I get your love of it at breakfast!

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