A few years ago, while researching my latest book, King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, my husband, Allan, and I were visiting friends in their home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. On Sunday morning, the hostess told me that she wanted to cook a ricotta-cheese cornmeal dish for brunch. Taking out a tattered recipe from her mother, the late Millie Schwartz Lutter, she proceeded to make it for us: malai, meaning cornmeal in Romanian.
Cato the Elder, the second-century author of De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture), had a similar recipe using flour rather than the New World cornmeal. When corn came to Europe from the New World, it was planted in northern Italy and the Danube Valley of Romania, quickly replacing barley for the daily gruel—thus, polenta. It soon became mamaliga, the national dish of Romania. My friend’s family came to Montreal from Romania when it was part of Ukraine, bringing this cornmeal-based recipe back to North America.
Malai, a Romanian pudding made form cornmeal and ricotta cheese (recipe here), is the perfect dish for Shavuot—when dairy foods are traditionally eaten—or for breakfast any time of the year.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.