I may have decided that plums are my favorite fruit. Heavy qualifiers are required for such a weighty decision (I use, or ought to, the same such for speaking of favorite restaurants or wines). But nonetheless, I generally weigh in on the side of plums. Herewith the justification by comparison: Blueberries are indeed a very close runnerup. But they are berries and perhaps have their own category. I tentatively qualify blueberries as my favorite berry until next Strawberry season. Peaches: wonderful when perfectly tree-ripe, which you find perhaps once a year and so peaches are perfectly delicious in their fleeting way but out of the running for a constant favorite. Apples: they are varied in their own way but apples are always apples. I only eat them in the fall when they are in season and love them then, bake with them often in their turn, but never, ever think of them longingly at other times. Pears: hm, I do love a good pear. Especially the tiny, sweet Sekels. But they are too sweet when ripe to be quite as thrilling as plums (and as with apples are always so insistently pearish in nature, despite the variety).
What I love about plums is the way in which they balance their ripe juicy sweetness with a bracing skin acidity. Here I must readily admit that I do not have a sweet tooth. And I am often heard to say about wine that “acid is your friend” (as a balancing note, of course, but acid, especially in its absence, can come to seem everything!). I believe that the same holds true for food (and ditto for a bit of salt). So plums are marvelous for their sweetness balanced by acidity. I also love plums all the more because they are the only fruit that starts appearing in July and continues on, in various forms, through the very end of the fruit season.
I will admit, in fact, that plums are something I never properly understood until I spent much of the last three summers up in the Hudson Valley. The big black mealy monsters from California that populate East Coast grocery stores have, at their best, something to do with Real Plums (sweet juicy flesh and tart skins). But what makes plums so wonderful is their sheer local variety.
It starts with the tiny red sweet/tart beauties called “sugar plums” around these parts. They bear no resemblance to what I could find on Google (barring lots and lots of Christmas candy recipes) but they are tiny and red and round and perfectly bite-sized. Wonderful to burst the sweet juicy flesh in your mouth and then get the sour tang of skin and pit (which then gets spit out the car window as I can never wait to get them home to try some!) and reach for another. . . . I dearly love a generous handful of these served sliced in two over vanilla ice cream. . . .
Then come little yellow plums (firm-fleshed and sweeter; better for baking or jam then they are for eating but still good) and little blue ones and big black ones (these are so ripe and sweet that the juice runs down your chin, and the shock of skin-tartness is almost a reprieve) and finally in September the big Prune Plums.
This weekend past I stopped at my favorite Columbia County farmstand on the way back from a visit to my mom in Vermont and (not quite yet in the mood for apples) could not resist a box of those prune plums (just starting to go soft!). And for whatever reason (maybe because today was the first decidedly cool-feeling day of early fall? perhaps because today's all-too-recognizable date created a longing for doing, for comfort) what I wanted to do with them was bake. I’ve been getting the odd urge to bake and these plums were begging to be made into something. I first thought of some sort of short-crust-bottomed creamy tart (I have a recipe for apricots like that) but ruled that out as too much labor on a Monday.
Instead I thought of a variation on my favorite cake/tart, one I found amongst my stepmother’s copious collection of clipped recipes years and years ago and which no one but me apparently remembers. It was called ‘Swedish apple cake’ I think and it appealed to me in its simplicity – nothing but chopped fruit laid in a pan with a simple batter poured over. I have been searching and searching for this recipe (as I say, no one but me even recalls its existence – but I swear I didn’t make it up!! It was a standby of my teenaged baking, such as it was). At long last Clotilde published something similar, last year, which I have since adopted.
Anyhow, I thought it might be great adapted for plums. . . . and it was. The recipe can still use a bit of tweaking to account for the higher liquid content of plums, but even as is it is as easy as can be and a wonderful “grown up” dessert (ie not sweet enough for children, but wonderful for grownups with a dollop of sweet vanilla ice cream). Tweak away, and if I experiment further with plum baking projects I will duly report. . .
Easy Monday Night Plum Cake
10 large and ripe prune plums (or more; enough when halved to cover the bottom of a standard-sized tart or pie pan, preferably one with a removable bottom)
(optional but recommended) a generous grating of fresh nutmeg
¾ cup sugar
1 stick and 1 TBSP butter, plus some for greasing pan
½ cup flour
2 TBSP ground almonds (or almond flour)
1 ½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp finely grated lemon rind
Cut the plums in half, remove their pits, and sprinkle with ¼ cup sugar and the nutmeg. Toss to coat and let sit for 20 mins or so.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees, then butter a 9-inch tart or pie pan (best to use one with a removable bottom).
Arrange the plums (I alternated cut side up and cut side down) on the bottom of the greased pie pan.
Set the rest of the butter to melt on low heat.
Spin the flour, salt, baking powder and ground almonds for a moment in a mixer or food processor to fully mix and set aside in a bowl.
Spin the eggs and remaining ½ cup sugar in the fp or mixer until white and fluffy. Add the vanilla and lemon rind and mix. Add the flour and briefly mix, then add the melted butter and ditto.
Pour the batter over the plums, set the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake at 400 for 40 minutes (it will puff up and brown on top – let it brown up quite a bit).
Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes or more before removing the sides of the tart pan and inverting on a plate. Gently lift the tart pan bottom off (if some bits of plum are stuck you can scrape them off and replace them.) You can re-invert so it is served cake-side up if you want, but I think it’s prettier to see the plums. Let it cool completely before serving, as it is quite a bit softer than the apple version (given the liquid in the plums) but so delicious. . . . vanilla ice cream if you have a sweet tooth, a second slice if you don’t!