Family myth: Only my grandfather could cook mamaliga. Other people were neither strong, skilled nor patient enough to produce a smooth, lump-free cornmeal porridge -- no "raw" spots allowed.
Reality: Anyone can make this cornmeal mush, especially with the aid of a microwave oven.
"Golden bread" -- mamaliga's nickname -- was once a staple dish of many European countries, and in Romania, it became the national dish (there's even a reference to it in Bram Stoker's "Dracula"). Americans know it better as polenta, though, the Italian version of cornmeal mush.
In my family, the cast-iron pot that my grandfather used for making mamaliga was reserved solely for that purpose. In it he would boil salted water to which he very slowly added yellow cornmeal. Then he'd mix it, round and round in one direction only, with a long wooden pole, for what seemed like hours.
A mamaliga meal was always a festive occasion, so the table was set with a fresh white cloth. After the mamaliga cooked long enough for the wooden stick to stand up in it by itself, Grandpa turned it out directly onto the cloth. Then, with a flourish, he cut slices for us using a thick white thread. (My grandfather's recipe for mamaliga is included below but with several changes made by me.)
Usually we ate mamaliga with melted butter and pot cheese (a dry cottage cheese that's no longer easy to find). Grandpa told us that in Europe mamaliga was eaten with brinza (goat cheese). Poor people substituted pot cheese, and with every bite would pretend they were eating goat cheese by saying, "Liga yak a brinza," which, roughly translated, means "mamaliga, look at the goat cheese."
With our mamaliga we also often enjoyed a side dish of herring that had been soaked in milk, then breaded and fried or baked. Sometimes there was stuffed cabbage, too. Other Romanians and Romanian-Americans served sausage, salted fish, chicken paprika and meat.
The morning after having mamaliga, we would slice the leftover, warm it in the oven and top it with honey or milk. Other times we baked it like a pudding or fried it in butter to eat with pot cheese. (Sour cream, feta or cottage cheese and yogurt are also good accompaniments.)
For a long time after my grandfather died, no one in my family cooked mamaliga. My mother and aunts believed that only he could "make it come out right." When we finally tried it -- successfully -- we realized that the sadness of enjoying mamaliga without him had kept us from making the attempt.
Now that I've discovered how easy it is to make in the microwave, mamaliga is one of my favorite last-minute meals. Usually I serve it with farmer or cottage cheese, but the other day I tried a topping of sauteed mixed wild mushrooms, scallions and a squirt of soy sauce that turned this comfort food of my childhood into company fare.
8 cups boiling water
2 cups stone ground yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
Bring water to a rolling boil in a large saucepan. Very slowly add cornmeal and salt, stirring constantly. Be careful because the mixture may splatter. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, DTC stirring, until very thick, 20 to 30 minutes. Pour into a mold or bowl. Let sit 2 minutes. Unmold onto a flat dish or tray and slice with a fine string. Serve with melted butter and farmer, cottage or feta cheese, sour cream or yogurt. Serves four as a main dish, eight as a side dish.
cup yellow cornmeal
4 cups water
salt to taste
butter or margarine to taste
black pepper to taste
Place cornmeal and water in a large bowl. Stir in salt. Microwave on high for 8 minutes. Stir well with a wire whisk and microwave 5-8 minutes more or until thick. Whisk in butter and pepper and serve with cheese, sour cream or yogurt. Or top with sauteed mushrooms. Serves four.
Make mamaliga or use leftovers. Chill, then cut in slices about 1-inch thick. Melt enough butter or margarine to cover the bottom of a large skillet. Fry slices until golden brown. Serve with honey, jam or cheese. Or pour warm tomato sauce over slices.