I’m always up for trying new recipes, so when I saw this Polenta Layer Cake With Meat Sauce, I made it.  It was good, but it took up most of two evenings to make it.  30 minutes just stirring the polenta?  It was good, but I don’t want to spend hours over the stove to make what is essentially a casserole.  On the other hand, we did really like it.

So I simplified the recipe, thinking I could come up with a less labor-intensive version.  This is that version.

The polenta is easy – you can put it in the crockpot.   Boil 6 cups of water, and pour it into the crock.  The recipe says to grease the crock first, but I think the boiling water melts it all off anyway.  Add the polenta, some salt, and butter, and cook for 4-6 hours.  I try to remember to stir it every hour, but it’ll still work if you don’t – you just might have a few lumps.

When it’s done, grease a 13×9 pan.  Cut a piece of parchment paper just slightly larger then the pan, and grease both sides of it.  A spray-on grease will work, butter is better.  Spread half the polenta in the bottom of the pan, then lay down the parchment paper, and spread the other half on top.

Polenta Lasagna

Put it in the fridge to chill for a few hours. 

In the meantime, make the sauce.  I chopped up a bell pepper, some carrots, some celery, an onion, and garlic, but you can use whatever you have in the fridge.  Brown the sausage in a Dutch oven, then drain it and set it aside.  Sauté the vegetables in some olive oil until soft.  Add the sausage back, then add a big can of diced tomatoes, juice and all, and some Italian seasoning and let it simmer for half an hour.  It would be nice if you stirred it every once in a while, but you don’t have to. 

When the half hour is up, add a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, fresh basil, and a pound of sliced mushrooms.  Simmer another 10 minutes until it’s thickened.  Salt to taste.

You could skip this entirely, and use 6 cups of your favorite meat sauce instead.   But I like homemade tomato sauces.

When you’re ready to assemble, just lift off the top layer of polenta, parchment paper and all:

Polenta Lasagna

Spread half the sauce on top:

Polenta Lasagna

Put the other polenta layer on top (without the parchment paper, please!):

Polenta Lasagna

Add the rest of the sauce, and spread the cheese over the top.

Polenta Lasagna

Bake at 350F until browned and bubbly.

Polenta Lasagna

And serve.  It’s best with warm, crusty bread.

Polenta Lasagna

It’s even better the next day.  I was just as happy with my version as the longer version, and I’m much more likely to make this.  To make it even easier, you could make the sauce in bulk and freeze it, then just thaw it out while the polenta cooks. 

( see the recipe )

Leek Bread Pudding

I don’t think of bread pudding as savory – or at least I didn’t.  Then I found this Leek Bread Pudding recipe.

The recipe sounds just like bread pudding: toasted bread (I used challah), eggs, milk, and nutmeg.  But instead of sugar and raisins, it’s got leeks and cheese.

What you end up with, though, is closer to dressing.  In fact, it’s going on my list of Christmas side dishes for this year, to replace the bread stuffing that never seems to turn out.

I used about half a loaf of the challah I had leftover.  The leeks got sliced and caramelized while I cubed and toasted the bread.  Then everything got tossed together – the bread, some fresh thyme (I doubled the thyme, and I’d probably throw in some sage as well next time I make it), the caramelized leeks, and the fresh chives. 

The NYT recipe called for a 13×9 pan, but I tried Smitten Kitchen’s idea and put it in a large loaf pan.  I don’t have any clue how she managed to get it back out of the loaf pan in one piece, because despite using a non-stick loaf pan and butter, the cheese still stuck firmly to the bottom of the pan.

Whatever pan you use, layer in the cheese and the bread mixture, pour in the milk and egg mixture, let it sit for 15 minutes so the bread absorbs the milk, then put it in the oven.  The entire house will smell amazing for the hour it takes to bake.

Leek Bread Pudding

Since mine refused to let go of the pan to be neatly sliced, I just spooned it into a bowl.

I served it with a beer-can chicken:

Leek Bread Pudding

It’s definitely replacing all my existing stuffing recipes.  You could modify the spices to make it fit with pretty much any meal – the thyme and sage would go fine with poultry, but I don’t see why you couldn’t add other traditional stuffing ingredients, like oysters, apples, or sausage.

But I might not tell my Christmas guests that it’s bread pudding.  At least not until after it’s all been eaten.

( see the recipe )