Monday, November 8, 2010

Perfect Purple Plum Cake

Lovely weekend. Had Sky's officemates over for brunch on Sunday. (Hi gang!)I used the recipe in the November Martha for baked french toast and it was delish. Best part is you make it the night before, which meant on the day of I was downright relaxed. Reading the paper while I waited for everyone to arrive. If you know me you know this is about as unlikely as snow in South Carolina, but it can in fact happen!

On Saturday I felt the gods smiled upon me. As I browsed the farmers' market, there, sitting in their neat green plastic baskets, were a goodly bunch of Italian plums. Darker and smaller than their juicy American counterparts (somehow everything in America is always bigger), Italian plums are sweet without being overwhelmingly juicy the way those Americanos can be. Which makes them ideal for slicing, which makes them ideal for baking. So many times I've tried to halve a juicy plum only to be left with emptied plum skin on my fingers and the fruit inside mushed and squeezed and all over the cutting board.

Not so with these little beauties. They slice cleanly down the middle, the pit comes right out, and they're ready to sit atop a light cakey batter which became their destiny the moment I laid eyes upon them.

My grandmother gave me the recipe for this cake. It's not really a cake; it's actually a torte, but we (meaning my family) all call it Plum Cake. Sounds homier than the more bourgeois Plum Torte. I've been amazed since I started making it how many people have traded in their plum cake recipe for this one, I think because it is so delicious and so easy. You can make the batter in less than 10 minutes, then all there is to do is top it with plums and pop it in the oven for about an hour.

My grandmother didn't bake that much when I was a kid that I remember. That was left to my great- aunt Jennie. Giovannina actually, but we called her Jennie. She was famous for apricot upside-down cake, pineapple upside-down cake, strawberry torte (speaking of tortes, and this one you couldn't call a cake--way too fancy. I'll share with you sometime), apple charlotte....she was the baker at every holiday, which is when I saw her and my grandmother. We'd travel to New Jersey which is where my parents met when they were in high school and where my dad's family still lived, and if it was Thanksgiving we'd spend it at Jennie's, if it was Christmas at my grandparents'.

My grandmother was famous for her leg of lamb, turnip mashed potatoes, and green beans that even kids devoured. She's Russian, and grew up in Africa and Paris, and her cooking is beautiful and simple. Elegantly simple. Perfectly simple. She's one of those women who never seems to overeat, has her glass of wine every night, and has been the same size her entire adult life. My grandpa was happy with coffee ice cream for dessert, and half the time Jennie and my uncle Stef were over for dinner anyway so I guess she didn't need to be taking sweet things in and out of the oven.

But now Jennie and my grandpa have passed away, and my grandmother divides her time between my aunt in Philadelphia and a condo near my dad in Taos. She has a couple of Italian plum trees in her backyard in Taos, and necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Or at least adaptation. With so many ripe perfect plums my grandmother found a recipe for a cake that would show them off.

When I saw the plums in the market I did a happy dance. We were going to friends' for dinner, I was on dessert duty, and I was feeling a little crunched for time. I made the cake, it was fab as always, and my friend even said it was like one of his mother's cakes, which apparently is a giant compliment. So here it is.

Plum Torte
from my grandmother Nina Lora
I'm not sure where she found it.....

3/4 c sugar
1/2 c sweet butter
1 c unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
2 eggs
24 (approximately) halved pitted Italian plums
Topping: sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350
Cream butter and sugar
Add flour, baking powder, salt and eggs
Beat well!*
Spoon batter into 8" or 9" springform pan
Place plums skin side up on top of batter
Sprinkle lightly with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon
Bake for 50 min to an hour**


*By beating well, I mean beat til the batter is good and spreadable. At first it will be thick and stiff. Keep going. It'll still be thick but much, if you will

** Or if you have an antique oven that likes to get really hot even when someone comes to regulate it periodically, bake at 325 (or however much you're used to adjusting yours) and tent with foil if the top starts to get too brown.

***And lastly, I have made this with regular plums, I've made it with plums and nectarines--you really could put anything on there that strikes your fancy. I happen to find the Italian plums particularly suited, and it's how my grandmother always does it.

photo taken before topping was sprinkled and before cake went in oven. And oops! forgot to take a picture of the finished product. You know me.

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