September didn’t quite go as planned around here. Take, for instance, this recipe. I started this post nearly two weeks ago, when Italian prune plums were readily available for their fleeting season (I hope you can still find some where you are?), and summer was just showing signs of letting go. Now, moving into the first days of October, I’m finally getting to tell you about this cake, and feeling quite a bit different about life in general than I did just a couple weeks ago.
I’m not a big believer in telling long arduous stories about my life on this site–I suppose it’s because I know so many of you have your own challenges to deal with, and really, does the internet need another blogger yapping on and on about life’s tragedies? But I do feel like it’s important to let you all know that last week I lost one of my pillars, my sweet Gramma. And that’s because so much of what I do, the recipes I develop, the kinds of things I’m drawn to bake, are so influenced by her. Some of the the most oft-requested recipes on this site and in my books, like this heavenly pound cake, and the world’s best oatmeal cookies, and these perfect sugar cookies, are recipes I got from her. She was a believer in the sweet and the simple, both in and out of the kitchen. It’s an attitude we all could use a bit more of in these crazy, fast-paced days.
The weeks leading up to her passing were long and stressful. Choosing to stay in California with our kids while much of my family surrounded her bedside, subsisting on frequent texts from cousins and hourly phone calls for updates, any update at all, wasn’t entirely unlike peeling a band-aid off hair by hair. Knowing she was in so much pain, so close to crossing over into the life she’d spoken about for decades with the passion of a deeply spiritual person–it was hard to understand why she was hanging on so long. Two days before Gramma finally let go, I was able to talk to her one last time, the phone held snugly to her ear by my mother. Although I knew she could no longer speak or respond, I wanted to talk to her one last time. But what to say? How do you even begin, when someone has given you so many small things that all add up to something so spectacular that words fail you every time you try and explain it?
So I told her I loved her and I wished I was there with her, and told her I loved her again. And then I told her that Caroline and I had made this plum cake together the day before, and that it was so good, we wished we could send it to her. I told her that making it had made me think of her, because of the stories she’d always told me about my great grandmother, and how growing up they’d had a big Italian prune plum tree in their backyard, so every day in September there was always a freshly baked upside-down plum cake for dessert, to use up the bounty. I said the cake we’d made had almond paste and lemon instead of lots of cinnamon like the one she had always described, but that I thought she would like this one even better, especially with her coffee. I told her I would always make plum cakes every September and think of her. I said I loved her again. And then I said goodbye.
Italian Prune Plum and Almond Cake
Serves 8 to 10
This cake is meant to celebrate the fleeting beauty of Italian prune plums, but of course you can use regular larger red or black plums; just cut them into wedges and tuck as many as you can into the batter before baking.
I find that using evaporated cane juice (sometimes labeled as “organic cane sugar”) instead of regular white sugar gives a deeper flavor to the simplest of cakes, adding almost a vanilla note, but standard granulated sugar works fine, too, of course.
Be aware that different brands of almond paste can act all kinds of different in recipes that call for almond paste. For this cake, I used a tube of Odense brand paste, which is readily available in supermarkets.
For the cake batter:
1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 ounces/150 grams) evaporated cane sugar or granulated sugar
7 ounces (200 grams) almond paste (I used Odense brand), crumbled
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces/128 grams) all-purpose flour, divided
12 tablespoons (6 ounces/170 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
For the plums:
Generous 3/4 pound (340 grams) Italian prune plums (about 12-14 plums), halved and pitted
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 325°F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease the pan with nonstick cooking spray or butter.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the evaporated cane juice or sugar, almond paste, and 1/4 cup of the flour. Process until thoroughly blended and resembling sand, which will take about 1 full minute. Add the butter pieces, vanilla and almond extracts, and lemon zest. Blend continuously for 2 full minutes, until the batter is smooth and light. With the processor running, add the eggs one at a time, giving each about 5 seconds to blend into the batter before adding the next. When all the eggs have been added, stop the processor and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Process for 15 seconds more.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the processor. Pulse about 20 times to blend. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Press the plums into the batter in concentric circles, packing them in tightly. Bake until the cake is puffed and golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Let the cake cool completely on a wire rack before unmolding, slicing, and serving.
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