A Lemon Polenta Cake and Happy Accidents

When you don’t pay attention to what you are doing

When you are in a bit of a rush

When you are trying something new

When you don’t quite have all the ingredients in

Welcome to my world !

I’ve wanted to make a Lemon Polenta cake for ages, you see I’d eaten one at a friend’s birthday tea and my tastebuds were suitably impressed. Light, moist, lemony, not overly sweet, not too cakey, delicious, moreish. All these things.

So I tracked down a recipe by Nigel SlaterLemon syrup cake from the Guardian website. The title of which I don’t think does it justice. You see I was taken with the idea of using polenta in a cake, it gives it texture and stops it being, well spongey. Besides I love citrus desserts, I love the tang and sour.

So onto making the cake and why I talk about my failings – my failings led to a happy accident. Relief! You see there I was busy getting the jars of this and that out of the cupboard, and later on measuring and weighing, then adding to bowls and stirring.

But you see my mind is never completely on the job at hand, it wanders and meanders. It skits about. I seem to live life in some kind of semi-permanently distracted state. Outwardly looking like I know what I’m doing, inwardly thinking I must pay the gas bill, write an email, buy a stamp. A bit like a duck on the surface of the water, gliding along but paddling furiously underneath. And all the time wanting to QUACK !

When half way through pouring what I thought was ground almonds (crushed almonds) and peering into the bowl thought, hmmm strange colour, bigger grain and different texture. A quick taste. and an Oh la, la, la, la moment – I’d added desiccated coconut instead of ground almonds.

A moment of reflection. Stop what you are doing.Think and concentrate here. Luckily I hadn’t added all the coconut, so then weighed what was left and switched the remaining amount for the ground almonds. Carried on stirring. And basically hoping. Hoping that I hadn’t just gone to a whole lot of effort for a big fat nothing.

Hummed and Ahhed, put it in the oven, finished baking and making the syrup. Stood back and wondered. First slices cut, hmmmm, rather coconuty. Ponder, shall I confess? Partner to the rescue and confessions made. “well I like it, the coconut adds even more texture”. Result!

So if you like the sound of adding some desiccated coconut to this wonderful recipe, please do. I’d suggest adding half-half coconut and ground almonds, or even a quarter coconut and three-quarters ground almonds. But if you’d like to make a polenta and almond cake then follow the recipe. Oh and concentrate!!

A Happy Accident Lemon Polenta and Coconut Cake – all with a lemon syrup

Ingredients ~

  • 210g butter
  • 210g unrefined caster sugar
  • 100g whole or split almonds (skins removed)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 125g ground almonds (or if like me add a mixture of desiccated coconut )
  • 150g ground polenta
  • a level tsp baking powder
  • finely grated zest and juice of a large orange – (I used a grapefruit and some more lemon juice)

For the syrup:

  • a large, juicy lemon
  • a large orange (I used another lemon)
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp liqueur, such as limoncello (I added vodka or you could miss this out entirely)

Instructions ~

(from Nigel Slater, with my additions added in italics)

  • Using a non-stick, loose-bottomed cake tin about 20cm in diameter, line the base with a piece of baking parchment. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 5. Put the kettle on.
  • Beat the butter and sugar in a food mixer till light and fluffy.
  • If using whole almonds with their skins on – Put the almonds in a heatproof bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover them. Leave for 5 minutes, then pop each nut out of its skin, squeezing between thumb and forefinger. Discard the skins. Alternatively use sliced almonds.
  • Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. You just want them lightly mixed. Pour a little of the beaten egg into the creamed butter and sugar, beating thoroughly, then slowly continue adding and beating till all the egg is used up.
  • Finely chop the almonds. Add the chopped and the ground almonds to the egg cake mixture. Stir the polenta and baking powder together then add it gently to the mix.
  • Mix in the grated orange zest and juice. (I used a combination of grapefruit and lemon)
  • Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin.
  • Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, then turn the heat down to 160C/gas mark 3 and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes, covering the surface with tin foil if it is browning too quickly.
  • Remove from the oven but leave the cake in its tin.

Lemony Syrup ~

  • Finely grate the zest from the lemon and orange (I used all lemon) over a measuring jug. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze their juice into the jug, then top it up to 250ml with water.
  • Pour into a saucepan and add the sugar. Bring to the boil and keep at a rapid bubble until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reduced to about 175ml. (I guessed at this bit)
  • Remove from the heat and add the liqueur.
  • Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm in its tin) with a skewer, pour over the hot syrup and leave to cool.
  • Serves 8.



  • i love this cake claire, and your adventure with it sounds like fun, maybe i will add coconut next time just for you! it was one of the suggestions when we had to make a cake for the local residents group, but i chose a boiled fruit cake instead, a blast from the past 🙂

    • I love good old fashioned boiled fruit cake!! And do give the coconut a try, it added texture and flavour – unintended of course 🙂

  • Wow! Yum! Wow! I’d have a hard time hiding this one from my hubby. Might have to bake it, slice it, and freeze it into small pieces so he could have some from time to time.

    • We have an old cake tin – and as the week goes on the contents decrease 🙂 It keeps well though – probably becasue of the syrup. definitelt recommeneded!

  • I’m sure I would like your happy accident cake as I like coconut. You could have been describing me as my mind is always racing as well.

    • Sometimes I think it would be nice for my head to have more quiet moments, but it so rarely happens! Pleased you liked the cake Karen

  • Hooray for happy accidents! This sounds yummy, no matter which way you make it!
    Beautiful red currants…Angel ate all of mine before they made it to the kitchen 😀

    • Angel has good taste! I’ve bagged a load for the freezer, I had great inetntions of making proper jelly, but of course life got in the way so there is a bag of currant sin the freezer 🙂

  • Almonds or coconut? They are both so good – you made the right choice to continue what a delicious result of an accident 😀


  • Hi Claire. I love cooking accidents, only problem is I never remember what I’ve done. Today I tried to make biscuits to go through this squeezy trigger thing I have that is supposed to make fancy shaped bikkies, but the dough wouldn’t come out so I added milk to the mix and it just went all gloopy, so I thought stuff this for a game of soldiers and dumped spoonfuls of the mix on the baking tray, chucked chocolate chips on top as some kind of redeeming feature and ended up with these mini crunchy cake like things that were really nice, but left me wishing I knew what I’d done! I’m glad your cake turned out nice and you know how to do it again if you want to. Cheers Sarah : o )

    • Sounds like you were trying to make spritz cookies in a cookie press. 🙂

      I’ve dug my mom’s machine out of the cupboard and want to make some as well. Still researching recipes though I’ll probably go with the ones from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

    • I’ve never heard of a squeezy trigger thing or Spritz cookies, so now I’m curious 🙂 I think I got lucky as I was dealing with weights of things so could adjust backwards if you see what I mean. And like you I wish I could remember what worked well more often!

    • To be honest I think I did get lucky with this accident! I want to make it again without the coonut but my OH said he really liked it with it!

  • All I have to do is hear the words lemon polenta cake or see a picture of one and I want one. They are so perfect with summer fruits (cherries, peaches, berries — do you have any of those yet in rainy England?). Coconut and lemon go very well together. so I’m not surprised that your husband liked your cake. On the day I left for the airport I made a disastrous lemon and coconut Battenberg for Daring Bakers — I haven’t been able to bring myself to write about it yet.

    • Polenta cake is relatively new to me, and I’m a definite convert Sharyn.
      and ha ha ha to the rain – we’ve had currants (red), strawberries and some raspberries so far from the garden. Local cherries are now on sale, and I’m waiting for gooseberries, black currnants, blackberries. I may have to wait awhile though !
      I’d be interested to hear about your battenburg cake – maybe you could switch it for a polenta one instead 😉

      • Raspberries and blackberries are my favorite berries. I have painted a bad painting of the cake to go with the bad story — I’ll publish it eventually, but I have too many other things to say right now. Next up (tomorrow) rib rub and barbecue sauce. Then a rant on proper tea — you Brits will probably have plenty to say about that.

          • I didn’t drink tea in France. And I didn’t like the coffee either, with the exception of espresso — in fact, I rarely drink tea outside my home because you can’t trust many people to make it correctly.

          • I’ve only ever drunk espresso in France as well, but as that is all I drink I’m happy with that – although there are stil good and bad places!

  • A happy accident indeed! I love the sound of this cake with or without coconut and it looks amazing in the photo. It reminded me of a family trip to Italy putting the car on the train (very many years ago where there were no food stops en route). We had to take everything to last 6 people 2 days. My grandmother was in charge of milk powder to go into the black coffee (which was probably instant and in a thermos flask) as there was no long life milk or little cartons back then. She packed instant mashed potato instead which made for very interesting, grey and lumpy coffe. The story became a family legend 🙂

    • Family legend – class! It must have been a tough one to do, to have enough supplies for 2 days, but that would definitely have been hindered by mash potato 🙂

  • I’ve never heard of polenta cake, but I love polenta…and lemons… and also find the texture of cake often a bit too gummy, so I think I will love this recipe! Coconut sounds like a great combination with the citrus and the almonds…all very tropical, with cornmeal as a grounding agent. I will definitely try this, with your happy accidents! Thanks, Claire!

    • That’s a great description – gummy, that does describe a lot of cake! The polenta gives it texture so the gummyness isn’t there! I hope you do get to try it Cindy !

  • I agree that the “accident” was a happy one as it probably resulted in an even better cake. Is there much of a different between dessicated coconut and shredded or flaked coconut? And then there’s the sweetened/unsweetened dilemma though. Cooking can be so confusing as you have to make so many decisions whether to use what you already have in your pantry or go out and spend more money on just the right ingredient. 🙂

    I think I’ll just go and have a scoop of ice cream from my freezer … hmm, mango ginger or blueberry? More decisions, I guess. 🙂

    • You know I have no real idea as to the difference between dessicated coconut and others – I know the dessicated kind has a sweetness to it. And you are right about the decisions, I oftne skimp or miss things out as I know I don’t have them and it’s unlikely that I would use the missing ingredient much anyway!
      The ice cream decision is a better one to make 🙂

  • Looks and sounds great- we haven’t tried polenta cake but love trying new things. As for the coconut, what’s not to like? We add it to many dishes for the texture and flavor…

  • Happy accident, indeed! This cake would be delicious either way but the coconut did add the element of surprise to that first taste, I bet. I’m glad it worked out so well and may all of our cooking accidents do the same.

  • I love happy accidents…and this one looks very happy! I know that feeling of mind racing. I am constantly forgetting what I was heading to do, or even writing down to remember, because I think of something else in the same moment. Wish those moments would always result in something as creative and nice as your cake! 🙂

    • I wish I could slow my mind down a bit more, I practice yoga and the hardest part is the meditation, it’s so rare I stop. But I guess its a case of practice. In the meantime I’ll just go and have another slice of cake 🙂

  • Scoop of chocolate ice cream goes well although I like the flower based lemon cake better. 2 scoops of chocolate ice cream is even better. Imagine what 3 scoops will do !!! Let me tell you what 4 scoops…..

  • I love cakes made with polenta. Recently I baked a blackberry polenta cake and it was great. I love the little crunch the polenta adds. Your recipe is noe on my list to try.

    • Oh Teresa, please tell me you will blog the recipe, it sounds delicious. And blackberries are something I always have plenty of. They grow wild and act as a sort of fence/barrier to part of my plot. They are in bloom at the moment, and we still have some in the freezer from last year!
      And I do hope you like the lemon one 🙂

  • I had a big smile on my face while reading your post Claire
    I am so like you! Loved the duck metaphore 🙂
    I think the coconut would be a wonderful addition to such a cake and I have to say I find the idea and the texture of a polenta cake very ineresting

    • That’s lovely, I don’t think we are alone here 🙂
      the polenta is a great addition, the texture is thicker with a slight crunch, but still very light and delicious !

  • First of all, I love the pictures… especially the first. Second, when I first learned how to cook, I started reading cookbooks. Then, I payed attention to the proportions… about… And then I started cooking and baking, usually without recipes. I would try minor variations, according to what I had around. And if it tasted good, I would try to remember how I did it… but I didn’t always remember. And usually it worked out quite well. Too bad I can’t taste the cake, but I’m sure it’s good.

    • I’m sure you would enjoy a slice of the cake with a goo dcup of tea or coffee Shimon. And I think that is the best way to learn, to start adapting, and thinking around things as opposed to following literally. a metaphore for life maybe 😉

  • I would certainly add the coconut.. and focus, woman, focus, lol!! I do the same thing.. but with disastrous results, I’m so glad this had a happy ending!!

    • Focus – ha chance would be a fine thing 🙂 Honestly Smidge this was a rare one – a mistake that ended up as a positive. A real rarity here!

  • This is a wonderful recipe, to be sure! I love the addition of coconut. I, too, love citrusy desserts, and when they’re not too sweet they’re even better for my tastes. I have never worked with polenta in a dessert, but this sounds like one worth trying! I do understand about working distracted! I don’t multi-task as efficiently as I once did…I need to give things my whole focus, and I sometimes forget that! Your “faux pas” had a happy ending! Debra

  • That is funny! I tend to do the same thing…let my mind wander. SOunds like your cake turned out great anyway. I love all those flavors – especially the lemon! And I like it when a little mistake leads to a “new” version of a recipe!

    • It sounds like we are in good company, as from reading the comments there are plenty of us who get “distracted” or maybe it should read busy instead of distracted 😉

  • I love this post! Its the happy eureka accidents that put some color in our lives, and who doesn’t love a coconut cake? Cake looks and sounds great! I’m convinced citrus makes everything better.

    • a great way to look at life – having a eureka moment 🙂 And yes life would be pretty grey and colourless if it dodn’t have some ups and downs!

  • Some of the best things that ever hit this planet Claire were lucky accidents! I too love a not too sweet, citrusy dessert and not-too-cakey cakes – this sounds right up my street! Delicious! 🙂

    • Haven’t some of the best scientific experiments been accidents?! And it’ sdefinitely not too cakey, in fact answering these comments just makes me want to make another NOW 🙂

  • I love lemon desserts. This one looks fabulous, fresh, and a bit naughty. I do have some limoncello on hand. Cheers!

    • Thank you, I’v emade it again since, less coconut and more almonds and it’s delicious! But then I’m biaised, I love citrus 🙂

  • I think the coconut sounds genius! I think the best things happen “organically” when you are not thinking just doing!! 😉 I do a version with olive oil instead of butter, definitely bunging some coconut in next time now, nice to “meet” you!

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