Fine Cooking (October/November 2011)
Here's just about everything you need to know about this Polenta Torta, in a series of five photographs.
Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
But here's the backstory.
We loved seeing so many vegetarian entrées in this month's food magazines. It was a new Thanksgiving trend, and one that made us feel happy for our vegetarian brethren. They need to eat, too! Though we were sans vegetarians at our Fakesgiving feast this year, we did serve several vegetarian dishes and were eager to try out a vegetarian main dish.
So we chose this Roasted Squash and Polenta Torta. We'll spare you the full details and just jump directly to the problems:
It's time intensive. The roasting of the squash, the making of the polenta and the caramelization of the onions each take about an hour. (They can be done simultaneously if you have the burners and the juggling abilities for it.) The torta is then assembled in a springform pan and left to cool for at least two hours. We made ours the night before, and then let it cool in the refrigerator until the next morning, when we were ready to bake it.
It leaks. This torta made a heck of a mess in our refrigerator, leaking everywhere. Tip (we learned the hard way): If you attempt the torta, place it on a baking sheet in your refrigerator while it cools.
The torta never firmed up. We ended up cooking the torta nearly an hour longer than the recipe suggests. Each time we pulled it from the oven, we could see that it would never stand on its own once the springform was removed. So we kept putting it back in and cooking it for longer. Needless to say, a carefully planned meal in which you're making 17 dishes is not the time that you want the cooking times of any dishes significantly prolonged. We had a serious and strict oven schedule, and the torta wrecked it. Which leads us to...
As the photos show, the torta completely fell apart. We let it cool slightly, then released the springform. It briefly stood proud on the cake stand. We cheered! But then the cracks started to appear, and it kept sliding, and sliding, and sliding. We were sad.
It got really ugly once we started eating it. Because it had fallen apart, there was no way we were going to be able to slice it as they did in the magazine. So our friends simply spooned into it, which made the struggling dish look even worse. The onions go from being an accent layer to being all over the place. It just looks like a mess once spoons have dug into it.
[UPDATED: Could this all be a case of user error?! Fine Cooking has tipped us off to a very important detail that we missed in the recipe: The torta should be removed from the springform pan before baking. Maybe if we had taken it out of the pan when it was straight out of the refrigerator, it would have held its shape enough to bake.]
Though all that is very problematic, on the plus side, the torta tasted really good. The polenta is rich and flavorful, thanks to the sharp white cheddar and the roasted squash. The onion marmalade is a nice contrast, flavored with sherry, thyme and paprika. Several friends said it was one of their favorite dishes of the day.
Even after having a unsuccessful attempt at this dish, we still think it's a great concept. But our execution of this dish -- after following the directions very closely -- was so far from being perfect that we're not sure what changes could make the torta stand on its own. Our polenta was thick. We baked it for the required amount of time (and then baked it some more). We did what we could.
It's funny -- this torta standing beautifully on a plate is a vegetarian main dish you're proud to serve to your vegetarian friends.
But spooned into a bowl, it's the reason meat-eaters feel sorry for vegetarians at Thanksgiving.
1 2- to 3-lb. kabocha squash, halved and seeded; or butternut squash, halved, seeded, and sliced crosswise 1-1/2 inch thick
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil; more for the baking sheet and pan
5 cups homemade or store-bought vegetable broth
2-1/2 cups coarse cornmeal polenta, such as Bob’s Red Mill
2-1/4 lb. red onions, quartered, and thinly sliced crosswise
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. smoked hot Spanish paprika
2 Tbs. sweet sherry or Marsala
8 oz. grated Manchego cheese or sharp white Cheddar (about 3-1/2 cups)
Assemble the torta
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F.
Roast the squash cut side down on a lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet until tender, 45 to 50 minutes (if using butternut, roast cut side down in a single layer, flipping halfway through). Scoop the flesh from the skins and mash it with a potato masher. You’ll need 2 cups for the torta; save any extra for another use.
Bring the broth and 1 quart water to a boil in a heavy-duty 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking constantly. Continue to whisk until the polenta begins to thicken, 1 to 3 minutes. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is tender and no longer gritty, about 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and 1/2 tsp. salt. Cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the thyme and paprika, reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are reduced to about a third of their original volume and look like jam, 40 to 50 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat to medium high, and add the sherry. Cook, stirring often, until the sherry is absorbed, about 2 minutes. Set aside off the heat.
Stir three-quarters of the cheese into the polenta until melted. Stir in the 2 cups mashed squash. Season to taste with salt.
Oil a 10-inch springform pan. While the polenta is still hot and soft, spoon half of it into the pan and spread it evenly. Spread the onion marmalade over the polenta in an even layer right out to the edge. Spoon the remaining polenta over the onions, spread it evenly, and score the top lightly with a fork—it will look like corduroy. Chill the torta in the refrigerator until very firm, at least 2 hours.
Bake the torta
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Run a knife along the inside of the springform pan to loosen the torta. Remove the side of the springform pan and use two large spatulas to carefully transfer the torta to an ovenproof serving plate. Bake until hot throughout, about 40 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake until it melts, 8 to 10 minutes.
To serve, carefully and gently cut the torta into wedges. The torta is soft when hot, but it will hold its shape if you handle it gently.