Dinner Party Secret Weapon

I noticed something funny the other week. We’ve been cooking for friends all winter — don’t mistake this for me characterizing myself as big-hearted or generous: During long stretches of single-digit days, these meals are acts of self-preservation as much as anything else. We’ve busted out The Ragu, of course. We’ve experimented with short rib tacos and lettuce wraps. We smothered more than one leg of lamb in mustard. There were beautiful burrata starters and warm chickpea dips and Marcella’s milk-braised pork, because I don’t know what would become of us if we went more than a month or two without serving that to someone…anyone.

In spite of all our culinary high-wiring, though, it just occurred to me that we’ve only gotten a morning-after recipe request (highest praise possible in my mind) for one dish all season — a dish that requires only a few boring ingredients and, in total, costs probably under five bucks to execute: Baked Polenta.

I’ve had polenta in the rotation for years — versions of it are in both my cookbooks — but I’ve only recently found myself going back to it again and again when I’m entertaining. No matter what I’m cooking or who I’m cooking for, it always seems to be the right answer when I ask myself “What should we have with the lamb?” or “What should we serve with the short ribs?” or  “What’s missing from this menu?”

One key reason for this is because the dish is make-ahead. So at any point during the day, I can prepare my polenta the normal way — whisking corn meal into broth gradually and mixing constantly for 10 to 12 minutes — then pour it into a pie dish or a cast iron pan like the one shown in the photo, and let it set in the fridge. All I have to do when the party starts is top with cheese and throw it in the oven for 25 minutes. Another great thing: It’s completely flexible. So when I’m having lamb, I can heap on the feta before I bake. If I’m having an adobo-style pulled pork, I can reach for some good sharp cheddar. I’d go so far as to say it’s the Bill Clinton of my dinner party circuit: as down-home or uptown as it has to be depending on its surroundings. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it’s perfect with roasted vegetables for family dinner any old night of the week.

Make-Ahead Baked Polenta
As usual, the fewer the ingredients, the more you want to pay attention to the quality of those ingredients. Using homemade stock here takes the dish from good to great. Not surprisingly, so does the butter and cream. Also: The photo above shows a version of the polenta without the cheese baked into it. That works, too.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (bonus points for homemade)
1 cup cornmeal (finely ground)
1/2 teaspoon salt
drizzle of heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup freshly grated or crumbled cheese (plus more for garnish), such as Parmesan, cheddar, or feta

Grease a pie dish or an ovenproof cast iron pan with 1 tablespoon butter. In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a boil and turn down heat to a simmer. Gradually pour in cornmeal and salt, whisking as you go. Continue whisking for about 10 to 12 minutes until polenta is thick. Remove from heat and stir in remaining butter, cream (if using), and cheese. Pour the polenta into your prepared baking dish and allow to cool slightly. Cover loosely and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 425° and top chilled polenta with more cheese. (You can be generous here.) Bake for 25 minutes until warmed through, top is slightly golden, and cheese is melted or bubbly. Sometimes if I’m using feta and it doesn’t look “melty” enough, I smush it a little, then top with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh parsley.

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This sounds great. After much effort, I think my community is bringing back the dinner party! We have been having people over all winter (more like extended play dates for kids so us parents can get together). Pork ragu over papperdell this saturday night! Baked polenta is definitely going into the rotation.


This looks so good!! I love polenta. Does the polenta stay creamy in the center when you bake it?

Linda S

This is how I always make it, only without all the steps & stirring. You just put the polenta, liquid, salt & butter in a baking dish, stir, and bake @ 350 for 40 mins. Then you pull it out, add cheese (if you like), stir, and bake for another 10 mins. Let it rest for another 10 & you’re ready to go. Easy peasy & always comes out perfect 🙂


Can you add a Pinterest link to your posts pretty please? (Or am I missing it somewhere??) Your last two posts I have wanted to save but can’t figure out how…

Shelley @ dignify

KM, if you hover over the photo, a mini button that says “Pin it” should appear. Press that and voila!
You can also install a shortcut button on your browser bar so that you can pin anything from anywhere at any time!


thanks for your suggestion, but that option does not appear when I hover. I’m on Chrome browser, in case that matters…I don’t have the same problem on other blogs so wanted to flag here..


KM – I just updated the plug-in for the “hovering” Pin-it button. Try again and let me know what happens!


So funny. I just cooked up a big batch of polenta for my weekly dinnner swap because it is much better the next day than leftover pasta. My pot of puttanesca sauce is currently simmering on the the stove. Long live polenta!

Randee Donovan

Yum. Polenta. Cheese. Make ahead. Can’t go wrong. Gotcha.
This. Pot. This. Pan. We must talk about this! Who what where when????

Shelley @ dignify

Hilarious! I had recently commented on facebook: “Well, I guess that Feb 4th, 2015 will go down in family history as the infamous “Battle of Polenta”…” “Our girls dinnertime diet consists almost entirely of crudites, which is fine, but I simply decided that they need to “try” more than a dustspeck of everything on their plate – they need to eat their whole “portion” – which is approximately 1 Tbsp! Oh the horror!”
I loooove polenta and agree – it’s the perfect accompaniment! Sometimes I shortcut even more by buying prepared polenta in a tube and mashing it with milk with a potato masher.
Great go-to. Thanks!


The only reason no one is requesting all your other recipes is because they can find them on your blog! 🙂


We’ve been eating polenta (once-cooked) in bowls, topped with a mixture of sauteed onion, garlic, beans, corn and green chiles (all seasoned with some combo of salt, pepper, cumin, Tropical Adobo, etc.) and some grated cheese. Meatless (unless you add some sausage crumbles or the like), but so good and satisfying, fast and affordable.

Charlie Cook

Yumm polenta! Make ahead and bake are the best for entertaining. I like that you use homemade stock, that really makes a huge difference in my experiences as well! I can’t wait to try this next time I’m entertaining (although I’ll have to experiment with just my husband and myself first!)


This post made me finally crack open that bag of polenta I’ve had in my pantry and give it a try. It answered my “what should I serve with this chicken…not potatoes again”. It was easy and delicious – made with homemade smoked chicken stock – the smoky flavor made it over the top good and had my teenaged boys asking “MMMM what’s for dinner, it smells great”

Lauren B

Totally made this with dinner the other night. It was awesome! Not just for dinner parties, very easy to put together at breakfast and then into the oven at dinner during the week. I have a toddler, so anything for dinner that involves not standing over the stove at dinnertime is a winner. And got to use the random cornmeal in the pantry from who knows what. Thank you Jenny!


Hi. I am making this today but have a question: should I use the unspecified grind from my Albers Yellow Corn Meal or the Corn Flour from Bob’s Red Mill? The corn flour is apparently a fine grind of corn meal, but is that too fine? I hope you get this post soon! Thanks!


How many do you think this serves? I’d love to make this for Friendsgiving. Do you think two double batches would be enough for 20? I am going to make bolognese and mushroom sauce to top and everyone else brings tons of food. I appreciate any advice!


I’ve made this a few times and love it. The texture and taste vary based on the broth and cheese but it’s always delicious. And yes a good broth makes a big difference! I am always improvising, experimenting with food so I have very few recipes that I repeat, but this is definitely one of them!


In anticipation of making this a 3rd or 4th time I posted earlier today how much I love this recipe and i still do. I recalled I did make a few modifications though. I used about half the butter but about twice as much cheese and added some cheese on the top! I didn’t use cream this time and can’t remember if I did in the past! And even though it also takes me longer to make than I think it should, I will continue making it because it’s delicious.