This fanciful cake, a specialty of Bergamo, is meant to imitate a mound of polenta served with grilled game birds. The cake is molded in a half-sphere shape and covered with yellow marzipan; then some marzipan is colored and flavored with cocoa powder and molded in the shape of several tiny (cooked) birds. A spoonful of apricot glaze completes the effect, fixing the birds to the mound of “polenta” and imitating the cooking juices of the birds.
The pastry shops of Bergamo abound with this cake. Variously referred to as polenta or polentina, the cake comes in many different sizes and styles. Though many are based on a plain sponge cake like pan di spagna, I tasted several that used a corn flour-based cake to further the conceit of the presentation. The version that follows is a synthesis of many I tasted in Bergamo; the hazelnut filling complements the corn flavor of the cake and the richness of the marzipan perfectly.
For the syrup, bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Cool and stir in the rum.
For the hazelnut filling, bring the milk to a boil with half the sugar. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl with the salt and whisk in the remaining sugar. Sift the flour over the yolk mixture and whisk smoothly. When the milk boils, whisk one-third of it into the yolk mixture. Return the remaining milk to a boil and whisk in the yolk mixture, continuing to whisk until the cream thickens and comes to a boil. Boil, whisking constantly to prevent scorching, for 1 minute. Scrape the pastry cream into a clean nonreactive bowl and press plastic wrap against the surface. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours. To finish the filling, beat the butter, either with a hand mixer set at medium speed or in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle. Continue beating until the batter is very soft and light. Add the pastry cream all at once, then continue beating until smooth and light, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and the ground hazelnuts.
For the marzipan, cut the almond paste into 1-inch cubes and place in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle or in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the sugar and corn syrup. In the mixer, mix on low speed until the marzipan is beginning to mass around the paddle. In the food processor, pulse the mixture on and off about 10 times. The mixture will remain crumbly.
Turn the mixture out onto a clean work surface and add a drop of yellow food coloring. Knead the marzipan smooth by hand. Form the marzipan into a thick sausage shape. Double-wrap in plastic and reserve in a sealed plastic bag at room temperature.
To assemble the dessert, butter a 1½- to 2-quart bowl and line with plastic wrap. Cut the polenta dolce into thin vertical slices and line the bowl with them without overlapping the slices. Sprinkle the syrup over the cake slices in the bowl and spread on a rough layer of the filling. Fill the lined bowl with alternating layers of the cake slices, cut to make even layers and moistened with syrup, and the filling. End with a layer of unmoistened cake slices, which will form the base of the dessert when it is unmolded. Reserve about
To finish the dessert, unwrap the bowl and invert a platter on it. Invert and remove the bowl and plastic wrap. Spread the outside of the dessert with the reserved filling. (If the filling was refrigerated, let it come to room temperature.) Dust a work surface with cornstarch and place the marzipan on it. Dust the marzipan lightly with the starch and roll it out into a thin disk. Roll the marzipan up on the rolling pin and drape it over the dessert. Smooth it into place with the palms of your hands and trim away the excess at the base with a small, sharp knife. Knead the cocoa powder into the marzipan scraps and make 3 or 4 small birds, as in the illustration. Heat the apricot preserves to liquefy them; strain. Heat again until reduced and thick. Place a spoonful of the reduced preserves on the very top of the dessert and allow to cool and dry several minutes. Place the birds in the glaze, close together. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time. Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before serving so that the filling softens somewhat. Refrigerate leftovers tightly covered with plastic wrap.
© 1990 Nick Malgieri. All rights reserved.