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Polenta Layer Cake with Meat Sauce

The polenta cake from my maternal grandmother, Nonna Giulia, is much like baked lasagna except that polenta replaces pasta in between layers of winey meat sauce and tangy young sheep’s-milk cheese. Nonna Giulia died long before I was born, but this polenta cake recipe from provincial Sardinia, called pasticciata di polenta in Italian, was one of her jewels, and passed down by my mother.–Julia della Croce

LC You Say Lasagna, We Say Polenta Layer Cake Note

Brilliant, right? While you could simply borrow inspiration from Julia della Croce’s lovely layering idea, relying instead on your own renditions of meat sauce, we think you’d be missing out by not trying her simple, soulful recipes.

Polenta Cake with Meat Sauce Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 20 M
  • 2 H
  • Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 small celery stalk, preferably with leaves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
  • 1 pound ground pork, or a mix of ground pork and beef or Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup good-quality dry red wine
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 36 ounces canned plum tomatoes, drained, seeded, and chopped, juices reserved
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 Basic Polenta
  • 1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino cheese, such as fior di sardegna or tuscan caciotta, or young Spanish manchego, shredded
  • Olive or vegetable oil, for the baking dish and the work surface

Directions

  • 1. To make the meat sauce, warm the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, and celery and continue to sauté until softened, about 10 minutes.
  • 2. Add the fennel and pork, reduce the heat to medium-low, and sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and wait for it to evaporate. Add the tomato paste diluted in a little of the reserved tomato juices, then add the tomatoes along with another 1/2 cup of the reserved tomato juices and the salt. Cover partially and simmer over the lowest heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently, until the meat sauce is thick and fragrant. If the sauce seems to be drying out, add more tomato juices during cooking. Spoon off any fat that accumulates on the surface of the sauce. Then stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • 3. Meanwhile, lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Turn the warm polenta out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet or work surface. Working very quickly, use a rubber spatula or knife dipped into hot water to spread it out into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. Let stand until cooled completely and firm, at least 15 minutes. Cut the polenta into 3-inch squares or strips of any length.
  • 4. Heat an oven to 450°F (232°C). Arrange half of the cake squares in the bottom of the baking dish. Pour half the meat sauce over the squares and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the meat sauce. Repeat with another layer of each. Bake until the polenta cake is heated through and the cheese is golden brown, between 15 and 20 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into portions and serve.
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