The cornmeal flavor of these polenta cakes is a delicious complement to the dried fruit. You can line the ramekins with the caramel and fruit a day ahead. These little gems are best served warm, but they’re good at room temperature, too.
Lightly butter six 8-oz. ramekins.
Make the caramel:
In a heavy saucepan, stir the sugar and water together. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Cook until the sugar is completely dissolved; this is very important. Turn the heat to high and boil until the sugar is light amber. Swirl the pan over the heat to evenly distribute the caramel. Continue to cook until the caramel is a deep amber Keep a close watch; the sugar will go from medium to deep amber quite quickly. Immediately pour the caramel into the ramekins and swirl each one right away to coat the bottom evenly. Set aside to cool.
Too light. Caramel cooked to a light amber won't give the roasty flavor you're looking for-it will just taste sweet.
Just right. Caramel cooked to a deep amber is the right amount of bittersweet.
Prepare the fruit:
In a small saucepan, combine the dried apricots, orange juice, and cinnamon. Cover and simmer until the apricots are plump and tender, about 12 minutes. Add the dried cranberries and simmer another 2 minutes. Strain, reserving all of the poaching liquid. Set aside 1/4 cup of this liquid to flavor the cake batter and reserve the rest to moisten the caramel. Put the fruit on a plate to cool completely; don’t blot or drain. Cut each apricot into thirds on the diagonal. Arrange the fruit decoratively in each of the caramel-lined ramekins.
Make the cake:
Set a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, whisk the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon until blended. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, the reserved 1/4 cup poaching liquid, the melted butter, and the egg. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and gently fold until the batter is just blended. Add 1 tsp. of the remaining poaching liquid to each ramekin; swirl to distribute the liquid. Spoon the cake batter evenly into the ramekins. Lightly tap the ramekins on the counter to settle the ingredients. Set the ramekins on the heated baking sheet and bake until the edges are browned and a pick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Immediately run a paring knife around the inside edge of each ramekin and invert onto serving plates. Let the inverted ramekins rest for 5 minutes to let the topping settle. Gently remove the ramekins and serve.
nutrition information (per serving):
Photo: Scott Phillips