Cookie Swap: Polenta cookies bridge the seasonal dessert gap

Some people note the change of seasons with a wardrobe switch, some with a final dip in the pool. I make the switch from summer to fall in a simpler way: I change my morning beverage. Every year, sometime in late September or early October, I will come downstairs, dump out the pitcher of iced coffee, and pour myself a steaming mug o’ joe. Once I swap iced coffee for hot, I don’t look back: Stews and soups replace salads, plates have more orange and yellow and less green and red, and desserts turn from fruity to buttery.

But the seasonal culinary swap sometimes needs a softer transition. And so I recently found myself searching for a cookie recipe that would fit the warm days and cool nights of Indian summer, something to ease from summer’s light, clean desserts to winter’s hearty sweets. A cookie with some sweetness, a bit of brightness but also a little attitude, some texture. I trolled the grocery aisles hoping to find something new and different and got distracted by grains: quinoa, wild rice, couscous, polenta. Hmmm, polenta … I grabbed a bag, hit the produce aisle for some citrus and headed back to “the lab.”

Polenta is ground cornmeal, similar to Southern grits and a staple in northern Italian cuisine. Preparation usually involves boiling it with liquid until it becomes creamy, and it’s often served as a side dish. It also works surprisingly well in baked goods, lending a slight earthy sweetness and an interesting texture to cakes, scones and cookies.

I started with a basic shortbread recipe, added some lemon zest, and cut the flour with polenta, at first using half flour to half polenta. The result was, well, not great: After eating one, I felt like I was chewing on sand for an hour. But it was a step in the right direction – the lemon zest provided a bit of the brightness I wanted, but the plain sweetness of the white sugar left me a bit flat.

For the next batch, I lowered the ratio of polenta to flour, added an egg for richness, lemon juice to pump up the brightness and some honey, and there it was, the Indian summer cookie I was looking for: toothsome, sweet, lemony, the texture the perfect mix of gritty and smooth. The honey lent a deeper and more robust sweetness than sugar alone, the egg and lemon juice added moisture, and the tweaked polenta ratio was just right, adding just a bit of sandiness that nicely contrasted the buttery dough.

The children, however, were less than enthusiastic about my “old lady cookies.” Nothing a little mascarpone cheese couldn’t remedy. A quick mix of the Italian cheese, powdered sugar and lime zest sandwiched between the polenta cookies turned out to be a hit. The creamy, buttery filling adds coolness to the soft, grainy cookie, as well as a little fun color. Storing them in the refrigerator increases the softness of the cookie, and after a day or so, they have a cake-like texture.

The dough is also quite versatile, and substituting orange zest and juice for the lemon and making a chocolate mascarpone filling results in a slightly sweeter, more “kid-friendly” sandwich cookie that still appeals to adults, the perfect precursor to the belly-busting dense and creamy desserts yet to come this year.