Romania, the small Balkan country, boasts an intriguing Latin element that flavors its culture and cookery. Once an outpost of Imperial Rome (from which the name was derived), the country has long been linked with the Latin world and has a Latin-Romance language. The national dish is a cornmeal porridge or mush called mamaliga that is similar to the better-known Italian polenta.

Maize, or corn, from the New World was introduced to Romania by way of Italy from American and became the mainstay of the cookery centuries ago. A versatile staple food, corn, in the form of mamaliga, is eaten as a porridge or bread, but is also used to make a wide variety of dishes served for all meals, including breakfast.

The cornmeal specialty is known as mamaliga de aur (bread of gold), presumably because of its rich yellow color.

Mamaliga is cooked traditionally in a large kettle or pot that is hung in the home fireplace or put on top of the stove. The cornmeal is slowly stirred into water with a long handled wooden spoon until the porridge is thick enough for the spoon to stand upright by itself and for the mixture to take the shape of the kettle or pot.

Once cooked, the porridge can be served hot, plain, drizzled with melted butter, sour cream, or yogurt; or garnished with grated yellow cheese, white cheese, salted fish or meat, gravy, sauce, meat drippings, or fried or poached eggs. It is a favorite accompaniment for soups, stews, fish, spicy sausages, meat-stuffed cabbage leaves and vegetable dishes, especially mushrooms and sauerkraut.

The hot porridge is also turned out on a hot platter and then allowed to cool and become firm enough to slice or cut into squares, preferably with a heavy string rather than a knife. It can be eaten cold or fried in hot fat until crisp and golden, or dipped in beaten egg and coated with grated cheese and then fried. The mixture is also used to make dumplings and fritters. Sour cream is often served separately and spooned over the mamaliga specialty.

I particularly like baked dishes made with mamaliga which I enjoyed and learned to make in Romanian homes and restaurants. There are several versions. Generally the slices of cold mamaliga are arranged in alternate layers with cheese, tomato, or mushroom sauce in a buttered casserole. Or the mamaliga slices may be sprinkled with melted butter and grated yellow cheese, or brinza (white cheese) and yellow cheese, and topped only with dotted butter, or perhaps sour cream or beaten eggs and then baked until hot and bubbly.

Given below are three recipes for Romanian mamaliga. They are prepared with American cornmeal which is ground more finely than that used in Romania. Thus the recipes are slightly different from those one would prepare in Romanian homes. MAMALIGA (4 to 6 servings) 1 cup yellow cornmeal 1 cup cold water 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups boiling water

Combine cornmeal, water and salt in a small bowl; mix to form a thick paste. Have boiling water in a large saucepan. Turn cornmeal paste quickly into boiling water and stir immediately and continuously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring at a vigorous pace with the water continuing to boil until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Leave over low heat, covered, about 12 minutes, until cornmeal is thick and smooth. Turn into a bowl or onto a large plate. Serve hot, plain, topped with sour cream, yogurt, grated cheese, melted butter, gravy, or cooked eggs.

Note: You may add crisply fried crumbled bacon to the hot porridge before it is served, if desired. FRIED MAMALIGA WITH SOUR CREAM (4 to 6 servings) 1 recipe mamaliga (recipe above) 2 eggs, beaten About 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese About 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Prepare mamaliga according to above recipe. While still hot turn into a 9-inch square baking dish; spread evenly. Cool until firm. Cut into squares. When ready to cook, dip each square on both sides in beaten egg. Sprinkle both sides with grated cheese. Press cheese into the mamaliga. Fry in heated butter or margarine until crisp and golden on both sides. Serve at once garnished with sour cream. BAKED MAMALIGA WITH TOMATO SAUCE (6 servings) 1 cup yellow cornmeal 1 cup cold water 1 teaspoon salt 3 cups boiling water 1 cup farmer's or cottage cheese, drained and crumbled About 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese 1 cup tomato sauce 2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs 1 tablespoon butter or margarine, melted

Combine cornmeal, water and salt in a small bowl, mix to form a thick paste. Have boiling water in a large saucepan. Turn cornmeal paste quickly into boiling water and stir immediately and continuously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring at a vigorous pace with the water continuing to boil until the mixture is thickened and smooth.

Leave over low heat, covered, about 12 minutes or longer, until cornmeal is thick and smooth. Turn 1/3 of mixture into a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole. Top with 1/3 cup farmer's or cottage cheese, 1/4 cup grated parmesan, and 1/3 cup tomato sauce. Repeat layers. Sprinkle top with bread crumbs and melted butter or margarine.Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven 30 minutes, until hot and bubbly and golden on top.