Growing up in an Italian family, it goes without saying that this was not the first time I had polenta. This was, however, the first time that I had it in a sweetened form. When I think about polenta I am immediately transported to my grandma’s dining room, her house crowded with people, and catching a chill from the draft created each time a new person comes into the house. People are buzzing, and whiffs of sauce that has simmered all day and sausage that is frying dance through the air. It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and it’s one of the most celebrated dinners in our family, perhaps even more so than Thanksgiving Day dinner. You see, all of my grandfather’s siblings and their resulting families settled in the Chicago area while he stayed in Pittsburgh and married my grandma (aw). It became a tradition when my mom was still very little that our Chicago relatives came to visit for Thanksgiving. When I was young the house was full of people and everyone came for a full week (or longer) and for us kids it was truly like Christmas. Over the years, as members of the older generation passed and kids grew up, got jobs and families of their own, less and less made the trip, but there are still a few that come every year even if only for a few days. And to welcome the weary travelers when they get in on Wednesday, my grandma always prepares a large meal that includes a huge pot of polenta. You can choose to have it with marinara sauce and meatballs, or with crispy sausage and bacon. (I’m a sucker for the sausage and bacon, myself.) Needless to say, I am a big polenta fan and became an even bigger fan after tasting this sweetly satisfying breakfast dish.
And what’s not to love about sweetened polenta that has been splashed with cream and sprinkled with brown sugar that melts into deliciously sweet puddles as soon as it hits the surface? Nothing. There is nothing not to love. A hearty and satisfying meal that you can literally stir together in less than 20 minutes. House guests will be wowed and no one will be starving an hour later. I seem to have come down with some sort of summer bug and this breakfast was just what the doctor ordered. Hearty and warm like oatmeal, but exponentially tastier and more filling. And most important – quick!
If you aren’t feeding a crowd and have leftover polenta, line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and transfer the leftover polenta to the pan, cover it with the plastic wrap and pop it in the refrigerator to set. Stuffed French “toast”, anyone? Keep on the lookout – I’m going to have a killer recipe for you in another couple of days for those leftovers. In the meantime, grab a bowl, a splash of cream, some brown sugar and cinnamon, dig in and enjoy!
1 cup cornmeal
3 cups cold water
2 cups whole milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heavy cream (optional)
1. In a medium saucepan combine 2 cups cold water and the 2 cups of whole milk and bring to a low boil over medium heat. While waiting for it to boil, combine the 1 cup polenta and 1 cup cold water in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
2. When the milk and water mixture begins to boil add the salt and stir. Slowly add the polenta and water mixture, using a whisk to stir out any possible lumps.
3. Once all of the polenta is added, turn the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the polenta has thickened. Depending on the coarseness of the meal, it may take 10-40 minutes. I used an "instant" polenta with a fine grain purchased at a local Italian grocery and it took between 10-15 minutes to thicken.
4. Once thickened, add the brown sugar and vanilla extract and stir to combine. Sprinkle in some cinnamon if you wish.
5. Ladle polenta into small bowls and top with a splash of cream and an extra sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon, if you'd like. You can also top with fresh fruit.
6. If you have leftover polenta, line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and fill with the leftover polenta, cover with the plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. I have something special lined up that you'll see within the next few days!