Italian Polenta Cookies

I recently found myself with too much fine polenta on my hands that I’d gathered for some recipe testing. Grocery stores in France carry polenta (usually instant), and corn flour can be found at natural foods stores, but there are not many things made with cornmeal in the canon of French cuisine. So when I want to make a recipe that calls for cornmeal, I buy semoule de maïs fine, available at my local magasin bio or épicerie orientale, a catch-all term for stores that sell foods for Middle Eastern cooking.

It also gives me a chance to go to the Middle Eastern food shop, where I always spent way too long prowling the aisles, and for some reason, I always come home with a lot more things than what I originally went in there for.

She wasn’t Middle Eastern, but somehow, finding myself with too much cornmeal on my hands, I was reminded of pastry chef Gina DePalma, who often baked with it. Everyone who knew Gina had stories. She was frank and forthright, and few have captured the spirit of Italian desserts as well as Gina did as a pastry chef and baker, and as a cookbook author. (Carol Field did it well in The Italian Baker, another classic book on Italian baking, as did Nick Malgieri in Great Italian Desserts.)

When you talk to people in the baking world, especially people who worked with her, their eyes widen as if they are still being watched by her. Gina was the proverbial force-to-be-reckoned-with, and I like people like that.

I can’t say we were very close friends, but we bonded as bakers tend to do. We’d met in New York and became pen pals just when she decided to pack it all up and move to Rome. A few months later, she learned that she had a particularly aggressive form of cancer and returned to the U.S. We kept in touch over the years via some emotional emails, and eventually she left us. But every once in a while, I pull her book, Dolce Italiano, off the shelf and browse through it. And all that cornmeal gave me another reason to.

I’ve made Zaletti (cornmeal cookies) before, because I like them so much. Actually, any time a dessert has cornmeal in it, I seem to want it. I like the flavor and the crunch, but I also like how it leans the dessert in the savory direction.

Like many Italian pastries, these fall into one of two categories; Some are quite sweet, and others are not very sweet at all. I tend to go for the latter and these diamond-shaped polenta cookies fall squarely into the less-sweet category.

The dough is very easy to put together and it’s fun to form the diamond-shaped cookies.

The cookies do tend to spread a bit during baking. But once baked, they’re perfect with an afternoon espresso or cup of tea, or a glass of vin santo (sweet Italian wine) or Amaro, the bitter digestive, after dinner. I’ve been known to break into a few for breakfast as well, which I don’t think Gina would have minded.


Polenta Cookies
Print Recipe
About 3 dozen cookies
Instead of the eau-de-vie or grappa, you could use amaretto or another liqueur that you have on hand. If you are avoiding alcohol, you could use more water or hot tea for the 3 tablespoons of eau-de-vie.I used fine polenta, but if you have regular polenta on hand, you could use that. Similarly, it'll probably work with stone-ground cornmeal, although it's best to use one that's coarsely ground for maximum crunch.Although these get shaped into diamonds, you could roll them out and cut them into shapes using a cookie cutter.
3 tablespoons water
3/4 cup (90g) dried currant or another dried fruit, such as chopped cranberries or cherries
3 tablespoons eau-de-vie or grappa
1 3/4 cups (250g) flour
1 cup (160g) fine (or instant) polenta
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar, plus more for finishing the cookies
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder, preferably aluminum-free
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
8 tablespoons (4oz, 115g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
grated zest of 1 lemon
1. Heat the water in a small saucepan until it starts to boil. Turn off the heat and add the currants, or other dried fruit, and liqueur. Set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (They can be plumped a day or two in advance.)
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, polenta, sugar, salt and baking powder. (You can also make this dough in a large bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.)
3. In a medium bowl, mix together the egg and the egg yolks, then stir in the melted butter and lemon zest. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and stir together for about a minute, until they're well-combined. Add the currants and any liquid, and beat them in at medium speed for about 30 seconds.
4. Remove the dough from the bowl, wrap it in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disk, and chill until firm, about an hour. (The dough can be made 2-3 days in advance, and baked later.)
5. To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325ºF (160ºC.) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
6. On a lightly floured countertop, pinch off tablespoon-sized pieces of dough, roll them into little logs (you may need to flour your hands as the dough is sticky), then press the logs gently to flatten them a bit, and pinch the ends to taper them. Place them on the baking sheet about an inch (3cm) apart, to allow for some spreading. Sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar.
Bake the cookies until golden brown across the top, about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets in the oven midway during baking. Let the cookies cool for a few minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack.

Storage: The cookies can be kept up to one week in an airtight container at room temperature.

Crispy, crunchy Italian polenta cookies

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54 comments

  • June 1, 2018 1:04pm

    These sound good, and not too sugary.
    Your photos are always so mesmerizing. That melting butter being poured into the bowl is worthy of framing.

  • heidih
    June 1, 2018 3:28pm

    On the short-list. If your recent images are with your new camera – congrats – quite evocative of food passion

  • GIngerF
    June 1, 2018 5:16pm

    Do you think you could use masa instead of cornmeal/polenta?

    • Becky
      June 1, 2018 5:25pm

      My question exactly! Masa is very fine and soft, so I wondered if it would work. I have lots of masa on hand. And ditto on the photos, David, they are gorgeous.

      • GingerF
        June 1, 2018 5:52pm

        I have a lot of masa, too. Why is that? :)

    • Theresa
      June 1, 2018 11:07pm

      Masa won’t produce the same results.it will lack the texture. Masa is more like flour. Whereas corn meal has a small grain texture.

  • charlotte
    June 1, 2018 5:21pm

    Thank you for your story. Another woman who was a force not to be reckoned with was Marcella Hazan whom I had the pleasure of watching at a cooking seminar in Boston, MA many years ago. She has a shredded carrot cake that is made with ground lady finger cookies and amaretto that was very memorable and worth the time to make.

    • Karin Pereira
      June 1, 2018 6:44pm

      OMG yes, I took a cooking class from her years ago in Tampa…fantastic.

    • Rick
      June 2, 2018 12:12am

      Charlotte –
      That Carrot cake sounds amazing, would you by chance still have the recipe?

      • Charlotte
        June 3, 2018 4:26am

        I had her cookbook at one time and it was in it. I think a google search will bring it up.

  • Amy H
    June 1, 2018 5:30pm

    I knew Gina for a short time when she sought help in forming a charity called Cowgirl Cure to help people like herself by funding research into that devastating cancer. I, too, love her book and I’m sad that she’s no longer around to pester for baking advice. So glad you wrote about her. Thank you, David.

  • June 1, 2018 5:30pm

    A wonderful post with great photos for an early morning read. I love polenta but have not made cookies with it.

  • Carla
    June 1, 2018 5:39pm

    Love this! I always have some instant polenta on hand lately, actually my fam just brought me some from argentina! In the past when i’ve had too much i used it in pancakes and blueberry muffins. I will def try this cookie recipe also!

  • June 1, 2018 5:54pm
    David Lebovitz

    Becky + GingerF: Masa is very finely ground and is closer to corn flour than corn meal, so I wouldn’t use it in these cookies. It doesn’t have the right crunchy texture.

    charlotte: Yes, I remember her well. One night I was sat next to her at a dinner where she drank her drink of choice: Jack Daniel’s, and the server tried to explain to her what Parmesan cheese was, not knowing who she was (!) The look on her face was priceless.

    heidih: I’m still mostly using my old (Canon) camera, as I haven’t mastered my Sony yet. The color profile of the Son is very different and I’m not used to it, and I’d rather bake than futz with all those settings, and gray cards, and learning new photo editing software, etc…Glad you liked the pics!

  • Jack Caddell
    June 1, 2018 6:05pm

    Can’t wait to try these!!!

  • YvonneB
    June 1, 2018 6:12pm

    Interesting recipe! Can I use commercial US cornmeal in place of polenta? Or any adjustments necessary? (I normally use this to make polenta.) I realize there won’t be a ‘crunch’ but on the other hand, I can get right to it!

    • June 1, 2018 7:02pm
      David Lebovitz

      You likely could but I haven’t tried it. If you do, let me know how it turns out. I would try to get stone-ground cornmeal.

      • YvonneB
        June 5, 2018 3:36am

        OK: the problem was to decide which cornmeal, so I divided the recipe (minus cornmeal) into 3 parts (by weight) and added 1/3 c. of 3 different textures. (Can send pic of the 3 side-by-side visual to compare but don’t see how.) Final products appeared identical. The finest (Quaker’s yellow) was probably the best with a fine crunch. The next (Bob’s Organic Stone Ground Cornmeal) had more of a sandy texture than I found pleasant because the meal wasn’t really cooked. The third (Bob’s Polenta/Grits) was hard to chew properly. Maybe with liquid in the recipe (e.g., cornbread) the meal could have softened, but not with these. My hands-down choice was Quaker’s for texture. There may be other products with other qualities, but the Quaker was just right for texture. I might call these small scones made with about 40% cornmeal…. this was fun….

        • Colleen
          June 8, 2018 8:57pm

          Thank you! This is so helpful.

  • Linda
    June 1, 2018 6:33pm

    Thanks for posting about Gina. She was an exceptional talent. I have a few go to pastry chefs, Gina, Lindsey Shere, Carol Field, Claudia Flemming and you of course.

    • Karin Pereira
      June 1, 2018 6:42pm

      Linda, thanks for reminding me of Claudia Fleming as well

  • June 1, 2018 6:38pm

    I like the sound of these cookies, and intend to make them, but am feeling lazy about shaping each one. Do you think I could just drop teaspoonfuls on a baking sheet rather than shaping them?

  • Karin Pereira
    June 1, 2018 6:41pm

    I love to hear about some old-timers and Gina sounds about somebody I want to read more about her recipes, thus ordered the book. thanks David

  • Philip Ferrato
    June 1, 2018 7:18pm

    I make Zaletti every year for the holidays using Carol Field’s recipe, but I also took your suggestion for lemon glaze. It’s perfect, but after the first batch I started brushing it on, not drizzling.

    As a cornmeal fan, you should give her recipe for Krumeri a try. They’re wonderful with the ends dipped in chocolate.

  • Janet
    June 2, 2018 12:23am

    Davi, your comment about wandering around the middle eastern food store brought something to mind. We frequented an Asian food store in Seattle when we lived there called Uwajimaya. A friend of mine would go in there and inevitably leave with a lot of things with which she had no idea what to do. Her name for the place: “Ewwww, why’d you buy it.”

    • June 4, 2018 4:31am

      I absolutely ADORE Uwajimaya. We go every time we’re in the area, and if I am lucky enough to be able to go to the downtown location, my husband knows to leave me alone in the stationery department. I can spend hours in that area alone. And somehow, it’s the only place where I allow myself to purchase, vs. googling a better price somewhere else. :)

  • davina
    June 2, 2018 12:53am

    Are these a similar texture to your “Cornmeal Cookie (Zaletti)” recipe? If so, what modification might make these super crisp zaletti? (I normally use a medium coarse stoneground cornmeal for crunch, but I also want a really crisp cookie texture overall, rather than caky or somewhat softer interior cookie.) Any suggestions? Thanks!

  • Susie
    June 2, 2018 6:57am

    I’m going to make these with GF flour. Should I add a bit of xanthum gum?

    • June 2, 2018 7:33pm
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t know much about gluten-free flours but checked and saw that the Cup4Cup brand already has xantham gum in it, as does the King Arthur gluten-free baking mix. You should check the package that you have and see what’s in it as it may already be in there.

  • Nathalie (@spacedlaw)
    June 2, 2018 12:30pm

    Sound wonderful. I would live to try to make a savoury version, though.

  • June 2, 2018 2:25pm

    I miss Gina. ;(
    Thanks fo helping to keep her memory alive. I have so many great memories with her. She used to tell me “my desserts may not be the fanciest but they are often the tastiest”

  • June 2, 2018 2:33pm

    These cookies look and sound so delicious! I love baking with cornmeal – the texture turns out perfect and unique every single time. I have to try these cookies soon!

  • Barbara Solomon
    June 2, 2018 3:49pm

    Could I make zaletti using olive oil in place if butter?

    • June 2, 2018 7:27pm
      David Lebovitz

      You wouldn’t have the same crumbly texture if you used olive oil, but if you don’t mind sacrificing that, you could certainly try it. If you want to get some olive oil flavor in there, I’d recommend swapping out a tablespoon or so of olive oil for the equivalent amount of butter. If you do either, let us know how they turn out!

  • Keith flynn
    June 2, 2018 6:45pm

    David,
    Mixed these up last night and I just pulled them from the oven. they smell delightful! I used amaretto, as it was all I had on hand.

  • Lynn W
    June 3, 2018 7:57am

    I made these today. I substituted water as i had neither grappa nor eat du vie. Delicious. Flavorful, not too sweet. The perfect afternoon cookie with a cup of tea. While my dough was chilling i thought to use the lemon juice in place of the alcohol. Will try next time. Thanks, David.

  • Dagmar Degree
    June 3, 2018 2:07pm

    Dear David,
    Sunday morning, enjoying my 2nd cup of coffee and aha your newsletter is in my inbox.
    I love, love everything you do! I think you’re so funny.
    I’ve tried many of your recipes successfully and tastefully and will continue to be inspired by your talent. And yes, I have most of your books. Even though I’m trying to divest myself from too many possession, I must have your books and kindle doesn’t hack it here. That’s why I own two copies of My Paris Kitchen.
    Thanks for giving me a big laugh this morning with the Bloomies spanx tshirt!!

  • Vered
    June 3, 2018 2:16pm

    I made the cookies today and they taste wonderful! the only problem is that they became flat when I put them in the oven…

  • June 4, 2018 8:02am

    Very tempting, especially the savory version..polenta is good for you? Who knew.. will you share your middle Eastern shop? I loved LA TETE DANS LES OLIVES!!

  • Michele
    June 4, 2018 4:20pm

    These are smashing cookies, and very Italian. Thank you for the recipe. I made them yesterday, with amaretto. They have a great texture, unusual with the polenta, and interesting. Perfect with an espresso and/or vin santo, as you say.
    They would lend themselves to all sorts of flavour combos. Orange zest and fennel seed would be very Sicilian. Or chocolate chips stuffed inside so they were gooey when cooked, with chopped hazelnuts, like Nutella – very Tuscan.

  • Rosalie
    June 5, 2018 10:37am

    I love polenta :) These look perfect for my not very sweet tooth.

    My Nonna would make a mixture of soft polenta cooked like porridge with chicken stock, a sprig of rosemary & a touch of butter when I was little.

    She’d serve it topped with buttered mushrooms, a dash of cream & a sprinkle of nutmeg. Try it out in autumn, I think you’d like it David :)

  • June 5, 2018 4:35pm

    These sound so interesting. Can’t wait to taste the polenta and dried fruit blend together! I also prefer the not so sweet desserts. Thank you!

  • Virginia
    June 6, 2018 4:20am

    Oh good lord, I just took a bite out of one of these. A nice and crunchy crust with a smoother, creamier, center. The fruit comes out and the overall flavor is just other worldly.

    I used a course ground cornmeal, ginger flavored vodka for the fruit, some grated ginger in addition to the lemon zest, and dried cranberries.

    I wasn’t sure how big they were supposed to be, but I thought mine were too thick to be done in 15 minutes, so mine cooked for at least 25 minutes, maybe 30.

  • CHN
    June 6, 2018 4:25am

    I love anything with cornmeal, and zaletti are a particular favorite – and a challenge. I feel obligated to make any zaletti recipe I come across. They are all so different. I first made Gina De Palma’s as printed in her book, which unfortunately contained an error. Instead of 3 Tbs of water to soak the currants it calls for 1/4 cup of boiling water and the grappa, all of which is then added to the batter. I ended up shaping two loaves and making biscotti out of them. In truth they were very good, but they were not zaletti! I’m looking at my book now, and I see I penciled in a note telling me to try draining the liquid next time. (I did, with very good results.) So I’m very glad to see the change in the amount of liquid. (Dolce Italiano is a fantastic book.)

    Another excellent zaletti recipe is in a book called The Regional Italian Kitchen by Nika Hazelton, a book I came across by chance (I had never heard of this author) and started thumbing through. When I saw it had a recipe for zaletti I had to buy it. This recipe is different than most others I’ve seen in that it calls for egg yolks only (3 yolks, no whites) and it uses ammonium carbonate as the leavening, which gives the cookie a special crispiness. I love the idea that recipes for this cookie differ so much, it creates the romantic notion that every household in Venice has its own family recipe for these delicious cookies. I am on a lifelong quest to try them all.

    • davina
      June 8, 2018 3:19am

      CHN, I would love to know the recipe details for Nika Hazleton’s zaletti… that crispiness you describe is just what I am after.

      • CHN
        June 10, 2018 5:41pm

        Ammonium carbonate (aka Baker’s Ammonia) is my secret weapon when it comes to cookies. Nothing like it. I can’t find this recipe on the internet. I’d gladly type it out for you but I’m not sure what to do about copyright infringement if I post it on this blog. Perhaps someone has a suggestion?

        • davina
          June 20, 2018 2:41am

          CHN
          That’s kind of you. Thank you for the offer. I’m not sure if there is a way to reply to me directly (without posting my email address publicly?) or not…. or perhaps I can create a one-off email address to use for this sort of thing…

  • Nicole
    June 11, 2018 12:10pm

    Hi! I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time, and now have recently moved to Paris! It’s been interesting trying to find ingredients here, and you have been immensely helpful. I read your post about flour, and am wondering in a recipe like this if the measurements are appropriate for French 55 flour, or I should find 65?
    Thank you so much!!

  • June 11, 2018 9:19pm

    These sound great! Definitely a cookie I would love to make.

  • tim
    June 17, 2018 2:46am

    I made 2 batches with Cornmeal not polenta and both worked well.
    First one was with Med grind and one was with reg cornmeal from Bobs. I think you can do well with these cookies on normal indian brand cornmeal as well.

    Both worked well. I think the normal was a little better… less crunch.

  • Michael A. Riley
    June 18, 2018 7:36am

    I loved Gina, it’s always nice to see her written about. We miss her so much.

  • JennyDS
    June 20, 2018 3:27pm

    Thank you for sharing this recipe! My Italian husband and in-laws just eagerly polished off the half-recipe I baked this morning in their tiny Milan kitchen. Very quick and easy to put together! I had to get them in the oven quickly before my 10 month old woke up, so I took a short cut with the shaping. I shaped the dough into a parallelogram, wrapped it in parchment and tossed it in the freezer for 10 minutes, then quickly sliced it with a chef’s knife into diamonds. The shape was very pretty.

    I wanted to share with anyone interested that the addition of chopped DARK CHOCOLATE was very successful. I admit I did not try the unadulterated version first, BUT, oh man, the contrast of the slightly gritty and not too sweet cookie with the rich smooth chocolate chunks was incredible! I also used orange zest instead of lemon.

  • John Maxim
    June 23, 2018 7:29pm

    Thanks for the recipe. They were a hit with the fam. I was happy to share them with my Italian mother. Lemon is one of her favorites.