As if polenta couldn’t get any better, the addition of mascarpone provides a rich creaminess to this dish. Serve it alongside a hearty ragu or a refreshing salad for a weeknight dinner!
Okay, so this mascarpone polenta has definitely got to be my new favorite side dish! It’s nourishing, filling, and oh so creamy. There’s a touch of sweet corn from the cornmeal, and the mascarpone really adds an extra level of deliciousness.
Best of all, I use a very clever trick I learned from the comments of a New York Times recipe that makes the cooking process a snap! No more constant stirring, no more overly lumpy, goopy polenta. So thanks to Mary K for her brilliant method that I’m about to share with you.
What is polenta?
First, a primer on polenta. Polenta refers to the Italian dish of cornmeal boiled in liquid to a creamy, porridge-like consistency. Polenta is typically consumed in this thick, porridge-like state or sliced and deep-fried. Polenta is hearty, rich, and creamy, with tender but not gritty grains of cornmeal.
A quick history of polenta
Polenta has a surprisingly complex history, and it’s changed significantly over time. In modern times, you could describe it as Nancy Harmon Jenkins did for the New York Times when she published a piece titled “Polenta: The Cornmeal Mush With a Little Italian Accent.” The title is a simple yet clever way to describe polenta (and its rich history).
We know that corn is obviously not native to Italy. So how did it get there? And is polenta a more recent invention? Corn, indigenous to the Americas, was most likely brought over to Northern Italy due to colonization and trade in the 1550s. Naturally, Italians began finding new and unique ways to use the starchy vegetable, including grinding it up into cornmeal and boiling it into the product we know of now as polenta…more simply described as, “cornmeal mush.” Of course, cornmeal mush is not unique to Italy. There are countless variations of cornmeal-based dishes across the globe, from African pap to Balkan kacamak. And that’s just it. Polenta, as we know it today, is an Italian version of cornmeal mush, a dish enjoyed throughout the world in many different ways.
The ancient origins of polenta
I think it’s important to acknowledge that Native Americans were the ones to domesticate corn in Mexico so many years ago (about 10,000 to be more precise!), and so they were likely the first to cook cornmeal mush, though it’s entirely possible that many cultures independently developed polenta. But either way, let’s give credit where credit is due.
Okay, so I have one last interesting fact for you. The ancient Romans consumed somewhat of a predecessor to polenta, known as “pulmentum.” Pulmentum was a porridge made from an assortment of grains, such as farro, barley, and chestnut. And for many centuries afterwards, Italians consumed some form of a grain-based porridge, especially in the poorer regions. Cheap, filling, and hearty, these porridges were an easy way for Italians to get their nutrients.
So even though polenta is sometimes seen as a luxury served at high-end restaurants, I think it’s crucial to understand its very humble origins. And while this polenta is delicious enough to serve for a date night, it’s also just the kind of thing you can make when you’re craving something simple and comforting.
What is mascarpone cheese?
If you haven’t tried mascarpone cheese before, I highly recommend it! Mascarpone is a soft Italian spreadable cheese, with a similar texture to cream cheese. It’s very smooth, rich, and creamy with a slightly buttery taste. Mascarpone, originating in Lombardy, Italy, is typically made by heating cream with acid, then straining it for a day or two to yield a thick, creamy texture. Mascarpone differs from ricotta cheese in that it’s made with cream, while traditional ricotta is made with leftover whey.
Ingredients in this recipe
This recipe has a very simple list of ingredients.
Polenta: It can be a little confusing to shop for polenta because there are so many varieties of cornmeal.
- I highly recommend looking for a medium or coarse ground yellow cornmeal or a product labeled ‘polenta’ that that indicates it’s made from a medium/coarse ground cornmeal.
- Avoid instant or quick-cooking varieties, as these lack flavor.
Milk: Polenta is typically made with water, milk, or stock, and you can choose what combination you’d like depending on your mood. If you’re looking for something lighter (to be fair, polenta is already pretty rich, so lighter is definitely relative!) with a stronger corn flavor, go with all water. Want a lighter polenta with a meaty or vegetal flavor? Use stock. Want a richer polenta? Use a half and half mix of water and milk. I do not recommend using all milk, as I think it’s too rich, but whatever milk you have, whether it’s whole milk, 2%, or skim, is totally fine.
Butter: A little bit of butter during the cooking process adds a nice comforting flavor to the polenta.
Black pepper: I like to cut the richness of the polenta with a good dose of black pepper. It adds a bit of fruity, peppery heat.
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese: Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese adds some sharp, salty notes to the dish.
Mascarpone cheese: The special ingredient here is the mascarpone cheese, which really provides additional richness and creaminess. You can typically find mascarpone in most major supermarkets and specialty grocery stores; look for the cheese in the dairy or deli section of your grocery store.
How to prevent gritty polenta
Gritty polenta can happen in one of two ways: either you purchase the wrong type of cornmeal or you haven’t cooked it long enough. As cornmeal transforms from raw to cooked, it turns from bitter to sweet and from gritty to tender. If you know you purchased the correct type of cornmeal, then it’s very likely you just need to keep cooking the polenta until it’s tender.
What do I do if my mascarpone polenta is too thick?
If find that that the polenta is too thick while it’s cooking, you can loosen it with more water, milk, and stock as needed. In my recipe, I call for a minimum of 4 1/2 cups liquid to 1 cup cornmeal; 5 cups liquid yields a softer, looser polenta, while 4 1/2 cups is just slightly thicker. Make sure not to use anything less than 4 1/2 cups, or the polenta will be too thick.
Here’s the other thing. Cooked polenta thickens as it cools, and there’s no way to prevent that from happening, so make sure to serve it hot while it’s still creamy and spreadable.
How to make mascarpone polenta
Here’s how to make this polenta!
- Add your cornmeal, water or stock, milk (if using), salt, pepper, and a bit of butter to a dutch oven. Stir to combine.
- Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, covered. Remove the cover, and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon. As you can see, after 30 minutes, some of the liquid has already started to be absorbed by the cornmeal — but it still looks quite loose.
- Bake for an additional 15 minutes, then check for doneness. Continue baking and checking for doneness until polenta is cooked through. It may take you an additional 30 minutes, depending on the type of cornmeal you purchase. Be patient here, time is everything.
- Remove the pot from the heat, then stir in the cheeses and butter. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately!
Opened mascarpone cheese will last up to a week in the fridge. Before using, make sure to check for any mold or spoiled smell.
Leftover polenta can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 to 5 days.
You can reheat a single serving of leftover polenta in the microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring between each interval. Just make sure to add a splash of milk or water to thin it out. For larger servings, reheat on the stove with a splash of milk or water to help thin it out.
Leftover, chilled polenta can be sliced cold and then fried in olive oil until crispy and browned on the outside and warm on the inside. It’s great served with a marinara-style dipping sauce!
Tips and tricks for this mascarpone polenta
- Make sure to cover your dutch oven while it’s baking. This prevents a skin from forming on top of the polenta!
- Serve your polenta while still hot. As soon as it starts cooling down, it begins to thicken.
- For a lighter polenta, replace the milk with water.
- For a slightly looser, softer polenta, use a ratio of 1 cup cornmeal to 5 cups liquid. Keep in mind the more liquid the polenta has, the longer it will take to cook. Do not use anything less than 1 cup cornmeal to 4 1/2 cups liquid, or it will be too thick (and the grains may not have enough time to cook before absorbing all of the liquid).
- Cooking polenta is a bit of an art and science. Stick to the ratios in the recipe, but use your intuition – if it feels too thick, add more liquid. Too thin? Keep cooking it until the liquid evaporates.
What to serve with this dish
- Ladle a serving of my hearty mushroom bourguignon over the creamy mascarpone polenta.
- For a lighter accompaniment, try this kale caesar salad.
- This squash with labneh and lentils would pair amazingly with this polenta!
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
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- 1 cup medium or coarse grain yellow cornmeal
- 3 to 3 1/2 cups water, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
- 1 1/2 cups milk, for a lighter polenta replace the milk with water
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- Black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1/2 cup finely grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
- Set a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 °F or 177 °C.
- In a heavy oven-safe dutch oven, combine cornmeal, 3 cups of water*, milk, salt, and a generous pinch of black pepper in a pot. Whisk for a few seconds until cornmeal is incorporated into the liquids. Top with 1 tablespoon butter.* For an even softer, looser polenta, use the full 3 1/2 cups of water.
- Place the pot in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, covered.
- Carefully remove the cover and stir the polenta with a wooden spoon.
- Bake the polenta, covered, for an additional 15 minutes, then check for doneness. When done, the polenta should have absorbed all of the water and have a creamy consistency. The grains should feel tender without being gritty.If the polenta still tastes gritty and/or not all of the water has been absorbed, continue baking until cooked through, checking every 5 to 10 minutes. It may take an additional 30 minutes, depending on the type of polenta you have. If the polenta is cooked through but feels too thick, you can thin it out with water to your desired consistency.
- Once the polenta is cooked through, remove from the oven. Immediately whisk in the mascarpone, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir until the mascarpone is fully melted.
- Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.