A pound or more of the smallest, deepest ruby red skinned plums from a farm upstate came home from Ari’s office last week. I ate some, and they were divine, incredibly sweet and oh, so juicy. The kind you eat standing over the sink.
Sadly, I knew I could not eat all of them fast enough before they went bad, so I pondered what to do with them.
In Italy, we ate frozen plums, the small, bluish-purple variety, as a refreshing and lite dessert after the long lingering meals on the veranda at Palazzo Bacile in Spongano when I was there for classes with the Awaiting Table. But I resisted the temptation to freeze them as much as I love recollecting those balmy summer evenings there.
A simple cake.
I hesitated because I did not want to use all of those precious picked plums in a cake, so I visited the store and added several more to my mix; sweet greenish-yellow Emerald Beauty plums, some Italian plums, and a few large deep black and ruby red plums that seemingly had no particular name other than ‘black and red’ plums as handwritten on the sign above their basket.
I really love to bake and after so many months away from my kitchen it’s nice to be back there and cooking again. The familiarity of my large metal mixing bowls and my favorite wooden spoons lends a sense of comfort and joy to my life and I am glad to be reunited with them once again.
I have a copy of the recipe I wanted to use. It is on a handwritten piece of paper that someone gave to me. But, as with most handed down recipes, it came from somewhere else. Turns out, the recipe for this cake is probably the most popular plum cake ever made. Maybe you have even made it yourself before!
It’s so simple. I make it all the time. It’s easily adaptable for every season’s fruit. I’ve used the same batter many times before but instead of plums, I have used strawberries or apples or even peaches or blueberries. Depending on what is ripe and what you have on hand, you can use it for virtually every fruit. I suspect it would also make a great banana or cherry cake as well.
It’s a cake with a history. Apparently it’s not called a cake though. It’s called a torte. I am not sure why. Although, it is dense and moist like I think a torte should be, it is missing the nuts and other ingredients you would normally find in a torte. I do suppose “torte” sounds as if a lot more effort were put into it. This “torte” is completely uncomplicated and yet it could be served at a holiday dinner party.
The recipe was first published in the New York Times by Marian Burros in 1983. It had been given to her by Lois Levine, co-author of their book Elegant But Easy. Every year from 1982 until 1995 the recipe was published in the Times and it was the one of most requested recipes each year.
Ms. Burros wrote in 1989:
“It is beyond understanding why fans of the recipe do not just save it from year to year, instead of depending on its appearance in this column. Yet, one of this year’s requests read, ”Isn’t it about time for the plum torte recipe?”
“…laminate this one and, instead of filing it with your other recipes, tack it on the inside of the cupboard where you keep the flour.”
-DE GUSTIBUS; Once More (Sigh), The Plum Torte
Published: September 13, 1989, NY Times
My copy is not laminated, nor is it tacked inside my pantry, but rather, it holds a prominent position in a binder book of mostly hand written recipes I call “All Things Sweet”.
With just eight ingredients, it’s so simple it’s brilliant.
- 1 cup sugar + 1 teaspoon for the top
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup AP flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt (optional)
- 2 eggs
- 15 plums, pitted and cut in half
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. For a single recipe grease a 9 x 9" square pan and set aside. Double recipe for a 9x13" pan.
- Cream together the sugar and butter in a large bowl.
- Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
- Pour the batter into the pan you prepared previously.
- Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter.
- Sprinkle the top with cinnamon and sugar.
- Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into comes out clean, about 40 to 50 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack. Serve directly from pan.
I was frugal with the plums in the cake and reserved just enough of the freshly picked gems to make a small batch of jam. Just a mere two jars and a small bowl, but enough so that I will have plenty for the next few weeks or so to spread on large pieces of challah, for breakfast, with cups of tea. It’s also incredibly good on top of a piece of roasted poultry.
Spiced Plum Jam
Yield: (4-5) 4oz or (2-3) 8oz jars.
- 2 pounds washed and prepared fruit (Peel, pit, chop, then weigh.)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamon
- 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
- Prepare jars and lids for standard water bath canning. Keep clean (4-5) 4oz or (2-3) 8oz jars warm in a large pot of simmering water until ready to use. Have new lids and clean bands ready as well as a clean lint-free towel or paper towel to wipe jars.
- If you are new to canning, I recommend you read this to get a feel for the basic procedures and precautions you should take to ensure you are creating a safe product.
- Prepare fruit by peeling and pitting. To peel the fruit, slice a thin X in the bottom of the fruit, dip it in a pot of boiling water for about 20 seconds and quickly transfer to a bowl of ice water. The skin should peel off very easily. If you have a hard time getting it off, repeat the process.
- Once the fruit has been peeled and pitted, cut into small chunks and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle the lemon juice over the fruit and toss to coat.
- Place a small plate in the freezer (you will use this to test the jelling set of the jam).
- In a large heavy bottom pot, add the fruit, water and sugar and cook, stirring continuously over medium high heat until it boils. You can mash the fruit at this point, but it will continue to break down as it cooks. Add the scraped vanilla and the pod (you will want to fish this out later)
- Once the fruit boils, reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook until the mixture has darkened and begun to thicken, about 30-40 minutes. Just before the end of the cooking time, add the cardamom and stir to combine it well.
- During this time, remove your jars from the pot of water and let them air dry on a clean towel.
- Remove the plate from the freezer and spoon a small amount of jam onto it. To test if the jam is done, move the jam gently with your finger; it should wrinkle slightly and feel thick. Tilt the plate. The jam should be thick enough that it moves very slowly; if it is too runny, it’s not quite ready and you should continue to cook the jam for another couple of minutes before retesting.
- Once you have the consistency you want, remove the pot from the heat. Fish out the vanilla pod and discard it.
- Ladle the hot jam into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims clean if necessary with a clean towel or paper towel, set the lid on the jar and tighten the ring around it.
- Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and set them upright on a clean kitchen towel. Within a couple of minutes, you should hear the jar lids “suck in” signifying that they have sealed properly.* Let the jars cool to room temperature before storing in a cool, dark place. Safety wise, they will keep for up to a year but after about 6 months or so, the color of the jam will start to darken and it may not taste its best, so try to use them within the first half year.
* If a jar has failed to seal properly, simply store it in the refrigerator, where it will last for at least 1 month. You can also reboil the jam and recan it, and give it another water bath.