Cornmeal – Not Corny at All

Take a ride through the rural area around Zagreb and you'll see a lot of corn fields.

Naturally, cornmeal was staple food in the old days and a number of local dishes use it. Nowadays, cornmeal is just another from hundreds of available ingredients we use in our kitchens. Yet, there are some traditional dishes based on corn that are still irresistible to us, no matter how old-fashioned they are. Nostalgia bites hard when you bite into a delicious corn bread or take a spoonful of creamy, slow-cooked žganci (polenta).

“The one and only real corn bread, at Dolac Market.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

First of all – bread, the basic item on everyone's menu, and an important part of our culture. When there was lots of corn flour around, there was also lots of corn bread around. It was even gluten-free before anyone knew what gluten was! Pure corn bread is a rarity now, and what you see in bakeries is made from a mix of flours. But go to the indoor hall of Dolac Market, where female vendors called kumica sell their dairy goodies. On a busy day, at least a couple of them will also have real rustic corn bread. You can spot it from far away. It's huge, round, brown from the outside and golden on the inside, cut in big chunks. These hard-working ladies from family farms in Zagreb's surroundings make it from scratch – they even grind their own corn. If you're not used to it, the taste of bread is something completely different. Not spongy at all, it's thick, hard, a bit sweet, and very filling. It's the perfect companion to another of Zagreb's favourites – fresh cottage cheese mixed with cream.

“Plain and simple, yet delicious – zlevanka cake.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

The other very common corn product is cornmeal used to make polenta. Level up if you manage to get it from a local meal, not a package of instant powder from the supermarket. The preparation takes longer and your hands might be a bit numb and aching from all the mixing, but in the end it's worth it. In this area, it's one of the items on every child's menu, either now or 50 years ago, always served with either yoghurt or milk. We even have a saying here in Zagreb... When a person is not skilful or strong enough, not up to a task, you can hear the old folks saying: He or she still needs to eat a lot of žganci! In local mythology, polenta is obviously the stuff that makes children grow, and turns the weak into strong. Of course, it is also often served as a side dish to hearty meat-based sauces. For example, I couldn't eat Szekely goulsh, one of the most popular winter dishes, without some polenta on the side.

“In the right combination, polenta is a reliable and rewarding side dish.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

And finally, cornmeal can also be used for desserts. Our grandmothers didn't have a whole range of ingredients for baking cakes and making sweets so they used what was at hand. Around Zagreb that meant flour, eggs and dairy. Zlevanka is one of those practical, modest, everyday desserts labelled as peasant foods. Looking very simple, it tastes delicious nonetheless. The name comes from the verb zliti, zaliti meaning to pour because the batter made from cornmeal, sugar, eggs, cottage cheese, cream and some oil is poured into a baking tray and then it goes into the oven. It is best when served warm, topped with homemade jam, although it can last for days and be eaten like a snack anytime. Add seasonal ingredients in it, like nettle, zucchini or walnuts, and you get an elaborate little dish, sweet or savoury. Some bakeries, like Dinara, sell it, but of course it’s best when it’s homemade. But be warned, although the recipe sounds pretty straightforward, it’s one of the desserts that are hard to master and a lot depends on experience, the right ingredients and the ratio.

“The golden colour of cornmeal-based zlevanka cake contrasts the black poppy seed nicely.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

Cornmeal has raised generations in Zagreb area and even if it’s not a very glamorous ingredient, we stick to it and pay homage to all the traditional dishes based on it. Find and use the best stuff you can get and have a taste of the good old days.

“The ever creative Orijent pastry shop paid tribute to zlevanka with this corn, cornmeal and cottage cheese ice cream.” Image credit: Orijent FB


Header image credit: Taste of Croatia

Author: Morana Zibar / Taste of Croatia