How I Got Down on Pi Day

I have always wanted to be one of those people who knew the dates of things.

It’s not that I have trouble remembering dates (for example, I always know my mother’s birthday and when my taxes are due and that November 1st is All Saint’s Day because 12 years of parochial school meant I had the day off), but I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who could remember that July 14th is National Mac and Cheese Day or that November 13th is Sadie Hawkins Day or, as an American, remember other countries’ holidays such as Bastille Day, Guy Fawkes Day or Walpurgis Night. I always thought it would be fun to be able to send invites to a handful of friends that say “April 27th is King’s Birthday in the Netherlands! Everyone bring a nickel bag and a stroopwaffel and let’s raise a toast to de koning!”

Alas, this is something I never do. I never remember the dates, I never keep a calendar for reference, and I never throw impromptu parties because that would seriously cut into my Netflix time. Also, I would have to put on real pants.

But one date I always remember is Pi Day. 3/14, for those of you confused about our backwards American way of marking dates like March 14th. For one, it’s hard to forget. Even when Pi Day falls on a weekday and has to compete with things like my job, chores, and getting up at 5am, I’m always reminded of it because I follow 2 kinds of people on the Internet – geeks and cooks. And Pi Day was made for both of them.

So I try to celebrate Pi Day each year. The trouble is, I’m not particularly good at making pie, and I’m also really bad at math. I know pie is supposed to be straightforward – make crust, dump things in crust, maybe put something on dump, bake – but for me, it is fraught with problems.

It starts with the fact that I hate making pie crust. I hate it. I hate making pastry dough in general because it’s messy and requires the perfect distribution of butter, and to be honest, I am only willing to do that with biscuits and even then I dread having to spend 10 whole minutes grating a frozen stick of butter and praying that it doesn’t get melty.

Then comes blind baking, which I’m told is the easiest thing in the world but it has always seemed like a weird interim/limbo step to me. Like waiting in an airport bar. I mean, how long is this goddamn dessert supposed to take, anyway? And why would I just keep a bunch of dried beans around if I’m not going to eat them?

Last comes the part about the actual end product. Like babies, dogs, and apex predators, I believe that pies can smell fear. They have to. There is no other explanation for why, after I’ve done everything right and according to the recipe, my pies always end up a little too crisp in the crust and a little too wet on the bottom, and while they taste good, no one’s taking any photos of them because it’s too hard to balance a camera in one hand and a plate of slippery mess in the other.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t make pies. Well. I say I make pies but they’re not really pies, they’re more like other things in a pie dish. And I just buy the dough. So. I make cheater pies.

What can you make as a cheater pie? Practically anything. Brownies. Crumbles. Round cake with stuff on top, as long as it’s in the right dish. Hand pies, because what’s an easier pie than folding dough over some jam like a homemade Pop Tart? Or you can just say to hell with pie altogether, and make whatever makes you feel like celebrating. For me, yesterday, Pi Day, that was a Grapefruit Polenta Cake.

I wish I could credit someone with the original recipe or at least tell you I adapted this from somewhere, but the truth is, in my opinion, so many people were fucking up what I felt was the best version of a Grapefruit Polenta Cake that I thought to hell with all of them. To hell with the glazes. To hell with the $12/bag almond flour. To hell with the the candied flower garnishes and the bottles of liqueur that I’ll use maybe once a year (unless someone can locate a Seattle source for Combier Pamplemousse Rose, because if that happens then all bets are off and I will be drunk all the tiiiiiiiime). All I wanted was a slightly sweet, golden-hued and almond-perfumed cake that tasted like grapefruit. And maybe I could dust it with confectioner’s sugar instead of drenching it in some viscous, sticky swill that would attract every mote of dust and airborne cat hair in my house.

I just wanted something simple. I wanted something that tasted like grapefruit. I wanted something that would allow me to pause mid-baking to eat half a grapefruit, to be honest. I really can’t get enough grapefruit.

So. I didn’t make a pie. I made a cake. A round cake, a fruit cake, a cake that’s almost a pie only it isn’t, and aside from measuring a few things, there was very little math involved.

grapefruit polenta cake

Grapefruit Polenta Cake

You’ll Need:

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, mostly melted
1 cup sugar
zest of 2 red grapefruits (no pith!)
3 large eggs
1 tsp almond extract
Juice of ½ medium red grapefruit
1 cup whole milk or yogurt
2 cups AP flour
3/4 cup medium-grind cornmeal
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp kosher salt
½ cup confectioner’s sugar, for dusting*

For syrup*:
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
1/3 cup sugar

*If you eschew the syrup and confectioner’s sugar because you absolutely must make a glaze, just combine 1/3 cup grapefruit juice with 1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar and whisk until it looks like you know what. But I hope you don’t have a cat.

You’ll Do:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In one bowl, combine the grapefruit zest and sugar with your fingers. Why fingers? Because it smells fucking amazing and you get to have grapefruit oil in your skin, ya dingus. Anyway, combine the sugar and zest, and then add the butter. Beat with a whisk until fluffy.

Add the eggs and almond extract and beat until combined, and then add the grapefruit juice and, again, beat until combined. Then do the same thing with the milk or yogurt. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Add the wet mixture to this and stir until combined.

In a 9-inch round and/or springform pan lined with parchment paper (you can also grease with butter or cooking spray if your pan isn’t non-stick), pour the batter and smooth the top with a spoon or spatula. Place into oven and bake for 45 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Place pan on rack and allow to cool somewhat before removing from the pan. Place cake on a large plate, then poke small incisions with a knife into the surface of the cake and slooooowly pour the syrup over it.

Once the cake is dry and cool (if not, this next step will result in a semen-esque sludge), dust the confectioner’s sugar on top with a sieve.

This cake is great with strong coffee in the morning, but it strikes me now (ahem, after I’ve had my cake and coffee) that this would be terrific served with cava and maybe a fat lobe of La Tur cheese.

Jesus wept.

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