Indeed, we travel to Venice for gondolas on the Grand Canal, San Marco’s Basilica, Murano glass, Burano lace, the romance and Gothic ambiance. In my humble opinion, however, Venetian cornmeal desserts should be near the top of the list.Jump to Recipe
“Turkish grain” arrives in Venice
“Native Americans had more than two hundred types of corn, another crop brought to Europe by Columbus,” writes John F. Mariani in How Italian Food Conquered the World. When this crop crossed the Mediterranean, it landed first in the region of Veneto, at the bustling ports of Venice. Many thought it came from Turkey, thus the name “Turkish grain.” Italians in the north did not eat the whole corn kernels at first; instead, they ground them into a flour, aka, polenta. Due to the plentiful availability of the grain and its ability to fill an empty stomach, polenta became the porridge of the poor in the north. Of course, now, many polenta dishes appear on the menus of Michelin Star restaurants all the way across the Atlantic.
Polenta elevated to star status
In the 1950s, New York’s posh Mercurio restaurant offered Polenta alla Milanese, in the 1970s Il Nido and Il Monello in New York served Crostini di Polenta, crispy fried cornmeal. The modern interpretation of la nouvelle cuisine, further popularized and upscaled the humble polenta. For example, the 3 -Michelin star restaurant outside of Florence, Enoteca Pinchiorri proudly served “agnolotti and tossed with polenta and mixed with scampi, candied tomatoes, black olives, and oregano.” (Mariani 159). Then, in the 1960s when the Mediterranean Diet caught fire, polenta was right there beside breads, pastas, couscous, bulgur and other important grains for the most healthy diet on the planet.
Zaleto = Yellow
Upon its arrival, the Venetians incorporated their new and versatile grain into their repertoire of sweets and cakes. Thus we have the zaleti – cornmeal cookies, and just as famously, Pinza Veneta, a holiday bread/cake flavored with cornmeal, pine nuts, chopped dried figs, almonds, fennel seeds and orange or lemon zest and traditionally served to celebrate Epiphany.
The Zaleto cookie is a low sugar cookie – the raisins soaked in sweet wine or Grappa provide ample sweetness and lets the flavor of the cornmeal shine through.
For this recipe, I used a red/yellow cornmeal from Tierra Vegetables, my local CSA, where they grow a wide variety of corn for polenta, masa, and popcorn.
If you look closely at the cookies in the photo, you will see the beautiful red and yellow flecks in the cornmeal. Grazie, Tierra Vegetables! However, any type of regular or coarse cornmeal polenta will work and make for a perfect Zaleto.
Zaleti – Cornmeal Cookies from Venice
- ¼ cup Grappa or a sweet white wine for soaking the raisins
- ¾ cup raisins
- 12 tbsp. butter, at room temp.
- 50 grams granulated sugar (1/4 cup)
- 2 large eggs
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- zest of one lemon
- 210 grams all-purpose flour (1 ½ cups) + more for dusting
- 140 grams polenta (regular or coarse cornmeal) (1 cup)
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. salt
- Preheat oven to 350 ° F
- In a small bowl or jar, soak raisins in Grappa or wine and set aside.
- In a large bowl, add sugar and butter and beat for 4 minutes until creamy and light. Beat in eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.
- In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients: flour, polenta, baking powder, and salt.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir just to combine. Drain the Grappa or wine from the raisins. Do not squeeze the Grappa or wine out of the raisins. Let them retain the moisture so the flavor of the Grappa or wine will infuse the dough.
- Dump dough out onto a lightly floured board. Knead once or twice to finish combining the raisins into a uniform dough.Using a rolling pin, roll out to ¼-inch thickness. The dough might be a bit moist and sticky, so dust with flour as needed.
- Using a sharp knife or bench scraper, cut diagonally to form diamond shapes Each cookie should be 3-inches long from tip to tip. (Watch the video below for visual instructions.)
- Lay cookies on a large, parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes until slightly golden and yellow. For even cooking, turn the cookie sheet around after the first 6 minutes of baking.
- Store cookies in an airtight container. Best eaten within one week.