Polenta Cake and Locker Room Banter

By Claudia Schou   |   April 8, 2021

Have you ever heard a baby cry and felt a sense of relief? It’s as if all of your bottled up emotions and the pressures of life get released with every little wail, like a valve letting out a bit of steam. I had this experience recently while I was standing on line at the grocery store. 

An anxious baby began to cry. “Oh my, let it out,” I said to the baby, through my mask. “Let it out for all of us.” The mother put the binky in the baby’s mouth and it was over as quickly as it began. I then realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve shed some tears and that maybe that’s all I needed to give myself a reboot. I would imagine that anyone who has exhausted every program in the Calm app has felt this way.  

The fact of the matter is I haven’t felt like my true self since the pandemic started. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I bumped into my good friend Sybille at the Montecito YMCA. She said: “This was supposed to be for the lifeguard, but I’m giving it to you.” And then she handed me a piece of lemon polenta cake neatly wrapped in a paper napkin.

Sybille is a statuesque woman who sports a pixie haircut and a well-spoken British accent. She’s devoted to lap swimming, art, and her dapper partner, Billy. I told her how much I missed our locker room conversations. There was a group of us: Sybille; Lida, the accountant; Gillian, the international marketing guru; Lucy, a bank investor and a professional violist; and myself, at the time, a hotel sales manager. We had some thoughtful conversations in between make-up applications and blow drys. It was a lot of fun for 7 am. The camaraderie and laughter was a boost for all of us. Most of us have continued to keep in touch via text.  

There was very little complaining or gossip in the locker room. Just women coming to the gym to stay healthy and fit and sometimes share anecdotes about past experiences. Gillian, an adventurist who makes a point to work with companies whose missions benefit the planet, shared some of the most amazing places and communities she has visited around the globe for work. She describes it as “work,” but seemingly it is her life’s passion to promote ethically conscious companies.  

Sybille once shared how she used to volunteer at a community center, and on one occasion when she observed an older gentleman wandering around the lobby she asked if he needed help and he replied “Yes, I joined this center to meet a new girlfriend, but all of these women are old.” 

It’s these types of interactions and anecdotes that keep life meaningful. Without them, life is just, well, meh. 

After my workout, I returned to my car and carefully unwrapped the napkin to find a triangular shaped golden corn cake that still retained a round edge from its original disk-like form. I took a bite. It was moist, with a burst of citrus, and then the combination of sweet corn and tangy sweetness seized me. I took another bite, and another, until it was all gone. I savored the last morsel, absorbing the flavors in my mouth. There I sat in my car, eyes closed, enjoying a brief moment of calm and euphoria. 


A rustic Italian-style cake made with cornmeal and fresh lemon, polenta cake is a familiar and intimate memory for those who grew up in Italian households. Depending on who you ask, the cake can be made drier or more on the moist side, almost soggy like a tiramisu. Both versions are absolutely delicious. Polenta cake is perfect for breakfast or dessert because it is sweet with syrup but it’s also gritty, from the stone ground polenta. The almond meal adds another dimension of flavor. The lemon zest balances the eggy butteriness, creating a rich cake. Add a shot of eau de vie – a clear, colorless fruit brandy that is produced by means of fermentation and double distillation, its fruit flavor is typically very light – to elevate the flavor. To be consumed with tea or coffee for breakfast or a dessert wine or brandy for dinner.  


Yield: Makes 12-14 slices


1¾ sticks soft unsalted butter, plus some for greasing the pan
1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups almond meal
¾ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
1½ teaspoons baking powder (see NOTE below)
3 large eggs
Zest of 2 lemons, save juice for syrup


Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup confectioners’ sugar


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Line the base of a 9-inch springform cake pan with baking parchment and grease its sides lightly with butter.

Beat butter and sugar till pale and fluffy, either by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon, or using a free standing mixer.

Mix together the almond meal, polenta and baking powder, and beat some of this into the butter-sugar mixture, followed by 1 egg, then alternate dry ingredients and eggs, beating all the while.

Finally, beat in the lemon zest and pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes. It may seem wobbly but, if the cake is cooked, a cake tester should come out cleanish and, most significantly, the edges of the cake will have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan. 

Remove from the oven to a wire cooling rack, but leave in its pan.

Make the syrup by boiling together the lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar in a small saucepan. Once the confectioners’ sugar is dissolved into the juice, you’re done.

Prick the top of the cake all over with a cake tester (a skewer would be too destructive), pour the warm syrup over the cake, and leave to cool before taking it out of its pan.

NOTE: To make this cake gluten-free, make sure to use gluten-free baking powder, or omit the baking powder altogether and beat the batter exuberantly at step 4.

To make this cake dairy-free, substitute cup light and mild olive oil for the butter.


You might also be interested in...