Combine milk, salt and vanilla bean halves (if using) in large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Slowly add the polenta, stirring constantly, and cook, continuing to stir, for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sugar and vanilla extract (if using), and allow the polenta to sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean halves, if necessary.
Divide the polenta among 6 to 8 dessert dishes. If desired, spoon a large dollop of Mascarpone cheese or strawberry or apricot preserves in the center of each serving. Makes 6 to 8 dessert servings.