4 cups water, or use half milk for a richer taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1½ cups coarse yellow cornmeal
In a medium cast-iron saucepan or other heavy pot, bring all ingredients except cornmeal to simmer over medium heat.
Very slowly, begin to sift corn meal into the pan through the fingers of one hand, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk. (This operation will be greatly facilitated if the meal is scooped by the handful from a wide bowl.)
Gradually sift remaining meal into the pan, continue to stir, and reduce heat to medium low. Continue to stir until the polenta is smooth and thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan as it is stirred, about 30 minutes.
Discard bay leaf, pour polenta into a serving bowl or onto a wooden board, and allow it to rest 10 minutes. To serve from the bowl, dip a large spoon into hot water and scoop the polenta onto individual dishes, dipping the spoon into the water between scoops. To serve from the board, cut polenta into segments with a thin, taut string or knife and transfer to plates with a spatula or cake server.