Polenta Cake with Meat Sauce

Polenta cake with meat sauce is essentially like lasagna but with polenta in place of pasta. Trust us, you’ll feel no regret over forsaking the familiar.

A square of polenta with layers of meat sauce on a plate with a fork, two glasses of wine

The polenta cake with meat sauce is much like baked lasagna except it’s polenta, not pasta, that’s smothered between layers of meat sauce simmered in wine and cheese. Brilliant, right?! It’s a traditional recipe from a provincial region in Italy known as pasticciata di polenta. While you could simply borrow inspiration from this lovely layering idea, relying instead on your own meat sauce, you’d be missing out by not trying this soulful recipe handed down through generations of the author’s family. Originally published March 15, 2011.

 –Renee Schettler Rossi

Polenta Cake with Meat Sauce

  • Quick Glance
  • (4)
  • 20 M
  • 2 H
  • Serves 8
5/5 - 4 reviews
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Ingredients


Directions

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.

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.

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.

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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Recipe Testers' Reviews

Though I loved this recipe, I did have a few minor quibbles. The amount of salt in the filling is nowhere near enough; there should be a line in the procedure instructing the cook to “salt to taste.” Also, spreading the polenta in a 1/4-inch layer is not easy at all. Next time, I’ll let the polenta set in a loaf pan, then slice the loaf into 1/4-inch slices—much easier.

On to the good stuff—and there’s plenty of it. The recipe is a pleasure to make, filling your home with that wonderful aroma of cooking pork, tomato sauce, wine, and fennel—it screams southern Italy. I loved the hint of fennel because it wasn’t overpowering and worked so well with the basil and the delicious sheep’s cheese (I used a 6-month-old Manchego). The layers of polenta made this dish into a lovely comfort food. It was soft, but not mushy, and was a perfect fodder for the meat sauce. I’ll make this again, and the cookbook has been added to my Amazon wish list.

This recipe looked like real comfort food—and that’s exactly what it is! The meat was extremely tender after one hour of simmering. Since the polenta doesn’t absorb much liquid once it’s set, the sauce should be thick. Because of this, I found that it wasn’t necessary to add back the reserved tomato juices. The only thing I’d change for next time is to add heat, with some black pepper and red pepper flakes. Spicy Italian sausage might also be a good addition. All in all, this was a great dish for a cold Sunday afternoon.

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Comments

  1. Looking forward to trying this but I thought I’d tell your tester, Cynthia D, that fennel seeds — all whole seeds, actually, can be ground to a fine consistency in a flash with an electric coffee grinder.

    I have a small $20 or $30 Capresso model that I keep just for spices. It is soooo worth it if only to rub pork with freshly ground fennel.

    1. Please use your fennel pollen. I have used it for years. It is great on pork and wonderful in tomato sauces. It will remove the acidic taste in tomato sauces.

    2. Rainey, you’re so right, thank you for the reminder! And yes, pork and fennel is such a lovely combination. Have you ever tried fennel pollen that Zingerman’s sells? I haven’t but I’ve always been curious if it has a distinctly different flavor profile than ground fennel…

      1. I actually have some fennel pollen that someone gave me for Christmas. I haven’t used it yet. It’s like fennel-lite with notes of celery leaf and licorice. At least that’s the best description I can come up with.

  2. If there is a variant of an Italian staple that is more Southern than grits and lasagna combined into one dreamboat of a kickasserole – I would love to see it. Standing O for this choice!

  3. I love layering things with polenta! That meat sauce sounds divine, especially the fennel and pork. I’ve been looking for a wonderful meat braise to use with a polenta dish, and I just may do this sauce recipe but with chunks of pork instead of ground. Yum!

    I also make a lasagne pan full of cheesy polenta, then top it like a pizza. At our house, tomato sauce, pepperoni, black olives and mushrooms and more grated cheese is the favorite, but it’s totally flexible.

    I really need to check out this book. Thanks!

    1. Oh dear, Ruthie, you are making my stomach growl! What’s for dinner tonight?

      1. Hah! Dinner tonight: Roasted Garlic Bagel Crisps, Cheesy Crab and Artichoke Heart Dip. It ain’t classy, but it’s going to be thoroughly enjoyed. 😉 Sometimes a full meal just doesn’t hit the spot.

        1. So true, Ruthie. That’s really what cereal is best for, I find…that post-dinner snack when you need a little something but can’t find anything else you want!

  4. I have some yellow grits sitting in the fridge just waiting to be sliced up–voila! Surely this will be better than anything else I could think to do with them. I am never really sure whether I have made grits or polenta–maybe it’s just a Southern thing, but they all look the same to me!

    The sauce sounds really delicious and it is perfect for a Wednesday – think I’ll skip over to What’s 4 Dinner and throw my ladle down for the challenge. See you over there….

    Karen

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