Come this time of year, I renew acquaintance with a recipe that I clipped from The New York Times Aug. 18, 1984, edition. It’s actually a Xerox copy, more than a little scarred by many hours on a kitchen counter. It is an easy plum torte from a feature called “De Gustibus,” written by Times food writer Marian Burros.
The recipe calls for purple plums, also known as Italian or prune plums. One thing that makes it special is that even in this day of year-round raspberries and asparagus in August, when most types of produce are available virtually 12 months a year, these plums are only in the markets in late summer and early fall. They are small and egg-shaped and only about half the size of their kin that we eat out of hand. They are also firm to the point of being hard and much tastier cooked than raw.
Prune plums are available right now and as is my custom, I bought enough to make a couple of tortes. They come around the time of the Jewish High Holy days, and the torte is well-suited to a Rosh Hashana dinner or a Yom Kippur break fast.
Apparently, I am not the only one who treasures this recipe. The Times ran it annually for many years then announced that its 1989 appearance would be its swan song; it printed the recipe in large type with a broken-line border to encourage clipping. By then, Burros’ column was called “Eating Well,” and the rich little torte was not exactly a good fit. Readers, however, objected — vociferously. And it continued to appear, nine times in all, from 1984 to 1995.
In 1991, Burros published the recipe in three versions with nutritional analyses. The original comes in at 278 calories per serving with 13.3 grams of total fat. Replacing some of the butter and sugar with ripe bananas and the eggs with egg substitute reduces the calories to 236 and the fat grams to 6.2. And there’s an inbetween version that replaces some of the butter with unsalted margarine for 264 calories and 11.7 grams total fat per serving.
The first time the recipe appeared, Burros told the story of how she had discovered that the torte freezes well and developed an assembly line to produce it in quantity. She made a deal with a friend to store 24 tortes in the friend’s freezer in return for a couple of them. The friend left town, leaving her mother to watch the kids. Returning two weeks later, she found only 12 remaining. Apparently, mom either ate the other dozen or gave them away.
I make this treat two at a time, typically one to eat and one to freeze or give away. After nearly 30 years of doing this, my copy is scribbled with notes, and in the recipe here, I am giving quantities to make two and instructions consistent with my trial-and-error learning. For example, Burros says to bake it at 350 degrees for an hour; in several different ovens, mine are always finished after 45 minutes — at the most. So, watch it in your oven.
This recipe will give you pleasure beyond the eating. The scent of cinnamon while it bakes is a treat in and of itself, full of nostalgia. It has perfumed many kitchens for me, and I hope it will do the same for my readers.
Plum Torte (Adapted from Marian Burros)
Yield: Two 9-inch tortes, each serving 8 Start to finish: 1 hour, 25 minutes
2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
24 purple plums
Juice of 1 small lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Halve plums lengthwise and pit.
• Butter two 9-inch springform pans.
• Cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, salt and eggs, and beat well.
• Spoon batter into the prepared pans. Place plum halves, skin side up, on top.
• Sprinkle lightly with lemon juice.
• Combine cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle evenly over plums.
• Bake for 45 minutes or until cake pulls away slightly from sides of pan.
• Cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with vanilla ice cream.
• Torte freezes well. Defrost and reheat briefly at 300 degrees.
• For a finer textured torte, sift the dry ingredients together before adding.
• Marian Burros has experimented successfully with putting the plums in skin side down.
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