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In her introduction to this recipe (originally titled Polenta Shortcake with Raisins, Dried Figs, and Pine Nuts) Italian cuisine high priestess Marcella Hazan writes that James Beard was overcome by this dessert when he traveled to Venice long, long ago. "He was fascinated by this local specialty, whose nuts and dried fruits are redolent of imperial Venice's trading days with the Near East," she wrote.
One bite into this compact cake packed with the concentrated flavor of slow, sun-cooked raisins and figs, the evergreen perfume of pine nuts, and pungent fennel seeds paired with Hazan's opening words kindle the ashes of memory and return me to the Piazza San Marco. My first glimpse of the plaza remains aglow, trapped in rose gold and sparkles, like ripe fruit preserved in a jar of luminous syrup. I can hear a string quartet in the distance and the agitated flutter of a thousand pigeons' wings.
In addition to feeling more connected to food that has a personal story, I love reading recipes where the voice and tradition of the writer comes through, especially because I find my own recipe writing to be rather dry and straight-to-the point. For example, Hazan says that you can pour the polenta for this cake into a pot of boiling water by holding it in a fist, then releasing a steady stream of it through your fingers while you stir with the other hand.
My hands are clearly not trained like those of an Italian donna used to accomplishing this feat, but I attempted the maneuver anyway, wrapped up as I was in the thrall of Venice. It was like that game where you rub your belly with one hand while tapping your head with the other. Or walking and chewing gum. I'm no good at any of the above-mentioned activities.
Don't expect this to have the crumb of a yellow cake. Instead, it's a dense and thick shortcake; I've read blog posts where people wonder if they've done something wrong, but this is the texture that's intended. Hazan recommends eating it cold, but I also enjoyed it slathered with olive oil and griddled until crisp. I suspect it would make surprising croutons, too.