Polenta Crisp Topping Recipe

I am a bad food blogger.
I mean, who would post a picture like this?

GRRrrrr!Seeing Red…

The most successful and popular food blogs start with a clever idea or beautiful image, and generally follow it with a witty or an emotionally-involving story behind it all.

Instead I’m posting this picture of the room where was to spend the entire weekend locked inside, which was to be my private retreat. Think Edvard Munch and The Scream, and I think you get the idea of my internal torment.

Last week I had left Paris to work on my next book, since it’s impossible to get anything done around here with all the caramels, chocolates, and glasses of red wine interrupting all the time. So off I went to the countryside for the weekend, armed with my laptop, some paperwork, too-little chocolate (which I later discovered, in a panic) and a good book.

So I arrive, start unpacking, and Merde!, I forgot my powercord! No electricity, except for the few hours on my battery, which luckily was new enough to get my through the first day. Since I’m two hours from anywhere civilized, and the hope of finding an Apple retailer is undeniably nil (although there is a nice egg farm & retailer next door) I was stuck doing nothing but reading and baking all weekend. So when you buy my next book, and find the last third of it blank, you’ll know why.

Seeing Red…Currants

But all was not lost, since the house was surrounded by red currant bushes and the branches were loaded with tiny red berries, I spent a good portion of the weekend picking the little red orbs, relieving the branches of the tiny clusters of gorgeous little fruits.

And as I greedily filling my mouth with the puckery berries, I was overcome with a feeling of having to bake something. So all was not lost, and bake something I did!

Rhubarb-Red Currant Crisp

For dessert the first night, I made a terrific Rhubarb and Red Currant Crisp with Polenta Topping. I sliced rhubarb into little pieces (about 8 cups), tossed it with some sugar (about 1/2 cup), some flour (about 3 tablespoons), a vanilla bean, and a few big handfuls of freshly-picked red currants, and voila, we had dessert practically right from the garden. Except for the sugar and vanilla and flour, although the house was surrounded by wheat fields, which was too green to pick and mill into flour. And besides, I’m not thatcrazy. Although I did go picked some wheat and cracked it open, but it was too fresh and I’ll sadly have to wait a few more weeks.

Aside from red currants, there were black currants (cassis) too, but they weren’t quite ripe. But the white currants were sweet and lovely but too precious to cook with, so I enjoyed them right off the branches. And next time you, or anyone around you, complains about the price of a basket of berries, go outside and pick a few hundred red currants and tell me what you think each basket is worth.
There’s a few running debates about the price of locally-produced, hand-picked berries, but you’re welcome to post comments here. And if you feel like picking any red and black currants, we’re heading back in a few weeks and could use a few extra hands.
(Warning: The pay stinks, but the rewards are delicious.)

Seeing White…Currants

Oddly enough, last year I saw a few baskets of white currants in my local convenience store. (You know, the kind of place where you can buy milk or butter or wine on dimanche if you urgently run out.) In their tiny, miserable produce section, just next to the shriveled carrots and brown, wilted lettuce (who buys that?), there were three baskets of plump white currants, so I made a mental note that if it’s ever a Sunday and I need some white currants in an emergency, I’d know exactly where I could get some. But finding a powercord in an emergency?…c’est pas possible.

No, the grapes weren’t quite ripe for picking yet…

No Wine…Yet.

But the egg farm nearby had lots of fresh eggs, so I made a Tortilla Española with bacon, and pomme de ratte potatoes, which everyone tries to tell me are called ‘fingerling’ potatoes in America, but I don’t think they’re the same thing, since I’ve never tasted any potatoes in the states that were as good as these. But if anyone out there can define what exactly is a fingerling potato, please let me know. Is it just any tiny potato?

There Was No Apple Store, But There Was An Egg Store

So since this is summer, I’m becoming obsessed with making a lot of fruit crisps (instead of earning a living). One of my favorite ways to top them, and to ensure they live up to their crispy moniker, is to make a topping with polenta, coarsely-ground cornmeal. It can be difficult to find in Paris, and although instant-polenta is available, I bought it once…and that was one time too many. (C’mon folks, we’re friggin’ right next door to Italy!) But I was happy a few years back to find a good source for coarse polenta at the Arab markets that I like to prowl through, which they stock in abundance.

Fruit crisps are perhaps the best and easiest of desserts to make during the summer, when all the great fruits and berries are at their peak. They’re incredibly easy to put together if you’re anything like me and keep a bag of Polenta Crisp Topping in the freezer, so you can make one at a moment’s notice. In general, I find that 2 to 4 tablespoons of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of flour, plus a dash of vanilla is just about right for almost any mix of fruits and berries. Mix it all together and put it in a 2-quart baking dish. Cover with crisp topping and bake in a moderate oven until the fruit is bubbling and the top is crispy and nicely-browned.

If using plums or apricots, double the amount of sugar, since they get rather tangy once baked. Although I used rhubarb and red currants in mine, you can use any mixture of peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, and plums. Add a few raspberries or blackberries as well. Although I wouldn’t necessarily use white currants, you’re certainly welcome to. But if it’s Sunday and you’re fresh out, go check at your corner store to see if they have any in stock.
There’s something nice about living in a country where it’s impossible to find a powercord in an emergency, but white currants are available whenever you need them. Talk about priorities!

(More pictures from the country are on my Flickr page.)

Polenta Crisp Topping

Enough for about 8 cups of fruit filling

3/4 cup (105 g) flour
2/3 cup (90 g) polenta
1/2 cup (55 g) almonds or walnuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup (110 g) firmly packed light brown or cassonade sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons (115 g) salted butter (chilled), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Put the flour, polenta, almonds or walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a couple of times to mix everything together.

Add the chilled butter pieces and pulse until the butter is finely broken up. Continue to pulse until the crispy topping no longer looks sandy is just beginning to hold together.

If you don’t have a food processor, chop the nuts finely with a chef’s knife then work the butter in with your hands or use a pastry blender.

Storage: Topping can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Can also be frozen in a zip-top bag for up to one month.

Recipe Adapted From: Ripe For Dessert.

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  • a dear, dear friend
    June 27, 2006 5:40am

    David – who’re “we” – who’s your companion at your country retreat? Your readers demand to be told! Those who have for years nursed the hope of becoming part of “we” are keen to know – AND to see a pic or two? Yummy food – shame about the power cord, though, but that loss was our gain! We all love you.

  • jennifer
    June 27, 2006 7:25am

    What book did you bring? I clicked on it and it popped up an error and as a crazy avid reader (my favorite thing about not working in restaurants and that schedule is having time to read!) I must know!

  • June 27, 2006 10:05am

    Wow. On all accounts.

  • iamchanelle
    June 27, 2006 11:23am

    david- so sorry you forgot your power cord – but my how you improvised!!! everything sounded so lovely.

    and please, would you be so kind as to share your Tortilla Española recipe?

  • June 27, 2006 11:44am

    I’m with you on fruit crisps and just posted a recipe for a blueberry crisp. I’ve gotta try that polenta idea, though.

  • Molly
    June 27, 2006 2:01pm

    Mmmmm…summer fruit crisps! A man after my own heart. I made a brilliant nectarine crisp for dinner* last night. Tonight, it’s plums. I’ll have to mix up a batch of polenta topping after my current pecan-oat topping runs out.

    *Yes, for dinner. I had roast chicken for dessert.

  • Lu
    June 27, 2006 7:20pm

    David, I have been reading you for a long time. And, only recently posted for the first time. I find your blog to be informative, delicious and HIGH-LARIOUS. These recipes are fantastic. I must need to buy your current book, but how can I get an autographed copy?! I love your Paris comments and your relationship with the city that pulls anyone in forever who has ever visited. I’ve been 4 times – and twice in the past 6 months – and it never stops, does it? Now I need to read the book you linked to in this post. I apologize to all of you over there for eating my Pierre Hermes macaron (maybe even drooling) as I walked down Rue Bonaparte. Excusez-moi. Merci, merci, David. —Lu

  • June 28, 2006 1:12am

    I got way too excited about apricots, cherries and peaches all being available at the same time this weekend at the Frog Hollow farmer’s market stand, so I wound up with an overabundance of fruit. Last night, I made a crisp. Instead of polenta, I used almond flour, and threw in a handful of slivered fresh almonds with the fruit. Though the peaches had a tendency to “weep” their juices, I think it tasted pretty good.

  • June 28, 2006 4:25am

    David, what’s all this talk about not bringing enough chocolate? And eating crisps and frittatas? Is this the same guy who just posted about his muffin top? Or perhaps you are one of those magical (and annoying) people who just has to mention he wants to shed a few pounds and lo and behold the pounds disappear.
    Nonetheless, I’m sure you managed to find ways to entertain yourself out in the bushes amongst the currants?

  • June 28, 2006 5:25am

    DDF: Each week I hold a contest here on the site. Readers are asked to send ideas for an all-expense paid fabulous vacation spot they want to take me. When I get them all, I choose one and go with the lucky reader.
    Hint: I’m hoping for Greece next!
    Readers? The ball is in your court…

    Jennifer: Link fixed!

    Matt: You should see the mound of red currants that got picked if you want to be wowed (and my red-stained fingers.)

    Lu: If you want your books autographed, I list my appearances on my Schedule page here on the site. Also guests on my tours can have their books signed as well. There are not many classes offered in the near future, but check back regularly (and if you subscribe to the site via the box on the sidebar) you’ll get notifications of my whereabouts. Looking forward to it!

    Michele: Who you callin’ annoying?

    Iamchannelle: You mean there’s recipes for those things?

    (Check Kelly in Barcelona for her recipe, which she just posted.) I add bacon and rosemary.

  • June 28, 2006 8:20am

    You did right to go to the countryside! It’s crazy in Paris today… all these people came out of the woodwork to shop?! Thanks for showing the pictures of the red and white currants. I will try some of the white currants someday!

  • June 28, 2006 6:25pm


    Fingerlings are just a broad category for relatively small potatoes, generally in somewhat finger-ish shape. Pomme de ratte potatoes are a type – in New York, when I visited a couple of weeks ago, they’re being sold as “La Ratte” fingerlings…



  • June 29, 2006 4:15am

    Your pictures of red and white currants are beautiful. Looks like you figured out your new camera pretty quickly!

  • July 2, 2006 4:45pm

    I so want to try your crisp. Too funny Levis!!!