The taste of summer memories

by Terry B on August 22, 2007

Prune plums are briefly in season, right now. That means it’s time for me to get out of the kitchen and let Marion share her luscious plum cake with you, along with a side of summer memories. Recipe below.

I remember the warm months of my childhood as a procession of seasonal fruits—first the small soft fruits, strawberries, and raspberries, both also indelibly linked in my mind to various Detroit backyards where my father always kept an assortment of fruit trees and berry bushes, lovingly tended in even the most urban settings. Every fruit was ripe for such a fleeting time, and we were all keenly aware of that little vanishing moment. When the fruits we loved fell ripe, we all went to work, picking, cleaning, canning, and the children of course holding up their end by happily eating. In mid-summer every year we would spend a Sunday scrambling around in trees at an orchard north of Detroit, picking as many sour cherries as we could stand; then for days my mother would imprison herself in the kitchen, where she would heroically can and can and can. Blueberries were later in the summer, when we were up north, and the best ones were the ones we picked in the wild. I particularly remember one warm, remote clearing full of low little twisted bushes that was my parents’ favorite—we would graze around in this warm, still bowl among the birch and pine trees, while my father told tales about a jealous, nervous bear seen in that same clearing just the week before.

These days most produce no longer seems tied to the calendar. Now we can have strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes and even cherries and watermelons and citrus any time of the year.

But prune plums remain obdurately seasonal. Small, dark, slim and even meager in shape, these plums aren’t much to look at, and eating them out of hand is just plain disappointing. But, with their low moisture content and their tiny stones, they are ideal for baking. My mother used to make an upside down cake with them unlike any other I’ve ever had—a luscious, homey recipe now lost to the ages. And they are in season now.

This dessert is in the spirit of my mother’s plum cake—lush, but very simple and direct. It is based on an apple cake recipe by Patricia Wells, who originally got it from “the apple lady,” a Frenchwoman selling the fruits of her family’s orchard in a Paris street market.

Once you start putting this cake together, it proceeds very quickly.

Plum Cake
8 servings

For the cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose, unbleached flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
zest of half a lemon
2-1/2 pounds prune plums, cut in half, stoned, then each half cut into four wedges [do not peel—see Kitchen Notes]

For the topping:
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1-1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

9-inch springform pan

Preheat oven to 400º F. Oil the pan and set it aside. Prepare the fruit. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, lightly measure out the sugar, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Stir it with a fork to blend. Add the vanilla, oil, eggs, and milk, and stir with a whisk just until everything is well blended.

Quickly add the lemon juice and lemon zest and stir again. Add the plum slices all at once. Mix everything together well.

Pour the plum mixture into the springform pan. Make sure the fruit is evenly distributed. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake it until it is lightly golden and slightly firm. This should take about 25 minutes, unless you have my scarily fast oven.

Prepare the topping right after you place the pan in the oven. Beat the egg and add the sugar. Melt the butter separately. Once the butter is melting, move the pan off heat and let it stand on the stove. It will finish melting and then will not overheat—the idea is to have butter melted enough to pour into the egg-sugar mix but not so blazing hot that it cooks the egg on contact. When you are a couple of minutes away from checking the cake’s doneness, then pour the butter into the egg and sugar and stir thoroughly.

When the cake is light gold and a little firm, remove it from the oven and set it on the counter or stovetop. Immediately pour the topping all over. Spread it around a bit—the center of the cake will be a bit higher, so, yes, the topping will run downhill. Don’t worry. Put the cake straight back in the oven. Bake it until the top is deep golden brown. When you press it with your fingers, it will feel very firm. This should take about 8 to 10 minutes.

Take out the cake and set it on a rack. After 15 minutes, run a knife around the edge; then unhook the springform pan’s side. Leave the cake on the base, allowing it to cool to room temperature. It is then ready to serve.

Kitchen Notes

Do not use any other kind of plums for this recipe. Prune plums are relatively low in moisture. Any other plum will be far too wet for this—the batter will refuse to set and it will be a grim disaster. One day you’ll look back on it and laugh, but today, not so much.

However, this recipe does lend itself well to other fruits. Of course, the original recipe called for “baking apples.” If you can track down any heirloom russet apples, that will be the best apple cake you will ever have. But if you don’t want to take out a second mortgage just for your simple, homey dessert, try a mix of McIntosh and Jonagolds, or McIntosh and Golden Delicious. Up the amount of lemon juice and zest a bit, too, and peel the fruit in the prep stage. Bosc pears also are very nice in this recipe—in that case, omit the cinnamon and try ground coriander instead.

Don’t leave this out on the counter overnight. Any uneaten portions should be refrigerated.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen

Why Max Roach mattered. Remembering the legendary, category-defying drummer, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

This week, WTF? Random food for thought. contains language that may not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers. It’s pretty [really bad word here] hilarious, though.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia August 22, 2007 at 1:47 am

I love prune plum season — I buy them by the bagful and nibble several a day. This cake looks lovely; will have to try it.

Christina August 22, 2007 at 2:07 am

Prune plums are amazing. I always look forward to them too.

I love the description of your father’s urban orchard.

Beautiful recipe–I’ll have to give it a whirl.

Mimi August 22, 2007 at 7:00 am

Plums are a big deal at our house! Last year, I experimented with a plum crisp, but I think I like the sound of your cake better!

Carolyn August 22, 2007 at 2:57 pm

I happily remember wild blackberry bushes that yielded buckets of rich, juicy fruit. Starting at a creekbed, the bushes ran up a shaded hill. The older boys would swing across the creek on ancient, gigantic vines that twisted from tall tree branches. Right after we awoke, we’d run out to retrieve a collanderful of fresh berries to add to our breakfast cereal. I do my foraging now under grocery-store flourescents and miss the joy of free gifts from Mother Nature. Thanks for the memory-jog.

Patricia Scarpin August 22, 2007 at 3:44 pm

You know about my passion for baking – I’m tagging this recipe right now. As soon as I find the good plums around here this cake is coming out of my oven. I can’t wait – it looks delicious!

I’m intrigued by the pear + coriander combination. I would have gone with nutmeg – too conservative. I like your suggestion more. 😀

ann August 22, 2007 at 5:10 pm

Funny… I only heard of prune plums for the first time ever while we were in Napa last week. I’m sure I’ve eaten them, as the description of them being very low in moisture reminds me of the plums that grew around my childhood neighborhood (it had been a mixed fruit orchard many decades before our home was built there and quite a few of the trees had survived).
I’ll have to keep an eye out for these at the greenmarket as I’ve finally bought some vanilla extract and am itching to use it to bake something!

Terry B August 22, 2007 at 8:16 pm

Lydia—This cake is even tastier than it looks, moist and satisfying to the sweet tooth without being overly sweet. And I can say that because I didn’t bake it.

Christina, Carolyn and Ann—I think it’s so cool how Marion’s memories create vivid pictures and trigger our own childhood memories of summer.

Mimi—Just be sure to stick to prune plums, as the Kitchen Notes warn.

Patricia—I indeed know you and baking. No need for you to wait for plums. Give one of the other fruits a go in this.

claudia August 22, 2007 at 10:18 pm

i just ate about 7 of those beauties for lunch today. this recipe sounds really great. i love the whole topping thing. i’ll bet it’s terrific. i gotta try this one before the little prune plums are gone…

Kirsten August 23, 2007 at 4:29 am

Beautiful post and lovely, lovely cake. If only I can find prune plums, and if only I baked. :)

The Cooking Ninja August 23, 2007 at 3:48 pm

That looks so good. My little ninja loves prunes. It’s amazing there are so many different variety and each has its own flavour. :)

Julie August 23, 2007 at 3:51 pm

I love Marion’s post and this cake sounds delicious. I have yet to see italian plums at our market but I have many, many plans for them when I do.

Susan from Food Blogga August 23, 2007 at 8:39 pm

Oh, yes, I have fond memories of prune plums (my grandmother’s favorite), which she always called Italian plums. Their season is maddeningly short, and enjoying them in your cake is a wonderful way to honor them.

Toni August 24, 2007 at 2:01 am

I used to grow prune plums in New Mexico, and would eat them by the handful. This recipe sounds like a perfect way to use them while they’re around!

Love your taste in music, too!

Casey August 27, 2007 at 7:30 pm

Just found this blog and here’s a post on just the kind of dessert I love most: simple but deeply flavorful use of seasonal fruit. Thanks for the detailed recipe.

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