Now’s the time to bake with Italian prune plums, those succulent dark purple fruits that are flooding farmers markets and supermarkets right now. Some even call them the zucchini of fruit! But let’s not go there.
These prunes are great to eat out of hand as well as to bake into galettes, cakes, and kuchens. The New York Times published its most requested recipe ever — Plum Torte — in the 1980s, and though this cake is absolutely wonderful, there’s a recipe that, to my mind, rivals it: Plum Kuchen.
“Kuchen” is German for cake, but you make the cake layer in a Plum Kuchen in a special way. Instead of creaming butter and sugar and beating in eggs and flavoring and stirring in flour and leavening, you cut cold butter into the dry ingredients just as though you were making a pie crust. But then you stir in egg, vanilla, and milk and it becomes a thick, wet dough.
How is that unpromising-looking mass ever going to become a cake? Just have faith and plop small spoonfuls of it all over the bottom of a buttered pan, then slowly swirl them together with the aid of a spoon to make a very thin layer. When topped with the Italian prunes, some butter, cinnamon sugar and baked, you will have created a delicately-textured cake about a half-inch high dappled with purple prune plums and their crimson juices. Gorgeous!
Absolutely heavenly in appearance and in taste, a slice of this kuchen will make you feel, by some magic, that you’ve been transported to one of the finest European cafés. Coffee, tea, or a cappuccino is most welcome. And leftovers are great for breakfast. Happy baking and eating!
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Kuchen is German for cake, and many such cakes — thick batters spread in a thin layer and baked — are made with fruit. You can use almost any kind of fruit: apples, peaches, or apricots, for example.
But this kuchen made with Italian prune plums is especially fine.
The batter is very easy to make, and it bakes into an exquisitely delicate and light cake. Although this is best when very fresh, it is still excellent the next day. I usually eat the leftovers for breakfast.
Serve the kuchen all by itself (wonderful), but it is even more wonderful with lightly sweetened whipped cream or a spoonful of plain or vanilla-flavored yogurt. When prune plums are especially good, I bake and freeze several of these cakes for a taste of summer in the winter time (see NOTE).
1½ cups sifted all-purpose flour (6 ounces)
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
⅓ cup sugar
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
1 large egg
⅓ cup milk, any fat percentage
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1½ to 2 pounds Italian prune plums (24 to 30, depending on size), halved and pitted
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan and set aside. Do not use cooking spray because the dough must adhere to the pan when you spread it.
2. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together thoroughly the flour, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and 1/3 cup sugar. Cut the 5 tablespoons butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender until the fat is in smallish pieces and looks like coarse crumbs.
3. In a small bowl beat the egg with a table fork well to combine the white with the yolk. Stir in the milk and vanilla, and pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with the fork until the dough is thoroughly moistened. It will be very thick.
4. To spread the dough into a thin even layer in the pan, place small spoonfuls of it into the buttered pan, spacing them an inch or two apart (pretend you're making drop cookies), forming about a dozen or so little mounds. Spread them together with the back of a teaspoon to make a very thin even layer covering the bottom of the pan. Take your time and have patience with this step. Swirling the back of the spoon back and forth in a figure eight pattern as you spread the batter does the best job.
5. Arrange the plums, cut sides down, in tightly packed rows on top of the batter. (I usually get 5 or 6 half-plums across the short side of the pan and 10 to 12 along the long side). Brush the plums with the melted butter. Combine the 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the plums.
6. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the fruit juices have almost stopped bubbling and a toothpick stuck into the cake portion comes out clean. Cool the kuchen in its pan on a wire rack. Cut around the sides of the kuchen to release from the pan. Serve portions warm or at room temperature.
NOTE: If you want to freeze the kuchen, butter the baking pan and line it with aluminum foil. Butter the foil and proceed with the recipe. After the kuchen has cooled in its pan, grasp the edges of foil and carefully lift the cake out of the pan. Set the cake on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer. When solidly frozen, peel off the foil, wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap, and enclose the cake securely in heavy-duty foil. Store in the freezer for up to 6 months. To reheat, unwrap the frozen cake (remove both the foil and plastic wrap), and set the cake on a baking sheet. Tent the cake loosely with the foil. Place the frozen cake into a preheated 300 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until it is completely thawed and slightly warm.