September’s Sweetheart: Plum Torte - No. 148
Crank up the oven and like Earth, Wind & Fire says, you’ll be ‘’chasin’ the clouds away.’’
SOME PEOPLE MARK THEIR CALENDARS with birthdays, anniversaries, or upcoming vacations. Others schedule ‘’Plum Torte’’ to bake when September rolls along.
Those would be the avid Plum Torte aficionados, a rabid fan club that has hounded the New York Times for decades to run a cake recipe it’s printed every year at the same time since the early 1980s.
And that recipe is one of my hands-down favorites. I’ve baked it so many times, I have my own way to assemble it. Here’s the story:
Lois Levine and her friend Marian Burros, yes THE Marian Burros, food writer extraordinaire of both the Washington Post and the NYT, collaborated on a 1969 cookbook called Elegant but Easy. When they shared Lois' recipe for a Fruit Torte they had no idea that recipe would amass a cult following once Marian wrote about it for the NYT.
The recipe is just a rustic, old-school way of baking fruit into cake. Can you say, kuchen? But it’s a timeless recipe, tied to the month of September because this is when plums come into season. And somehow, even if you’ve baked it every September of your life, it feels new again, like listening to Earth, Wind & Fire sing September for the 1000th time.
I was trying to think if there are any other recipes like this out there, maybe Chicken Marbella and the recent TikTok cherry tomato feta pasta, but as far as cakes go, I can’t name one other recipe that’s got so many groupies bringing butter and eggs to room temperature at a specific time each year.
One theory on why this cake is on repeat is that it’s like the falling leaves or the smell of three-ring notebook paper when you snap it into a school binder. It’s more than cake. It’s fall.
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. That means I rely on paid subscribers to make the writing, photos, and recipes possible. Thank you!
It says goodbye to summer. Farewell peaches, humidity, and sky-high water bills. And hello to new possibilities.
And the plums that were written into that first recipe were Italian prune plums or blue-black plums, here just in time for baking for Rosh Hashanah, beginning at sunset on the 25th. They truly are the best plums for the job because they’re intense and dark and add the element of surprise embedded in that soft, unassuming cushion of cake.
When you assemble this cake you feel like you’ve got more plums than batter, but as they bake they cook down and condense in flavor and size. Which makes the hunt for a flavorful plum part of the fun, and even if you can’t find these dark bluish plums at your store, the red ones will do. You can use any plum you like. I haven’t tried steeping prunes in Armagnac for this cake, but I am thinking it could be delicious…
What you might not know about the plum torte’s Marian Burros is that she is a dynamo food writer.
Marian’s always been more interested in the politics behind food than creating a viral recipe. She was in Washington in 1981 when ketchup (and pickle relish, too) was nearly declared a vegetable as it pertained to the school lunch program. That was during Ronald Reagan’s administration when new lunch program requirements were proposed to allow ketchup instead of green beans in order to slash a few food costs. It didn’t pass.
And Marian was in New York when she and chef Eric Ripert visited every fish market in the city and busted those merchants trying to pass off wild salmon that was farm raised.
When Marian was young and trick or treating at Halloween, her mother dressed her as a suffragette. She would explain in an interview with Wellesley Magazine, her alma mater, that her mother was an ‘’exceptional scratch cook’’ and quite politically active.
Apple Torte, Pear Torte, Fig Torte, let’s change things up
Fruit tortes are incredibly versatile, which is why I’m suggesting you bake a Plum Torte or a No-Plum Torte. In fact, this is your homework:
Open your refrigerator or look in your fruit bowl and find pears, apples, anything but plums. Do not drive to the store and buy plums. (Unless you’re already headed to the grocery and you see plums, and then, it’s ok.)
Use something soft, even canned pineapple, even berries. And I’ll bet the rest of the ingredients are already in your kitchen as well.
Amanda Hesser, one of the founders of Food52 and former food writer for the NYT says the appeal of this recipe is that it contains only a few ingredients, which you already have. And you don't need an electric mixer to make it, although you can use one if you like.
Any size pan will do as well, from an 8- to a 10-inch springform pan. The larger is preferable as there is more surface area so more crispy cake on top. And you can customize the amount of fruit versus cake by adding as much fruit as you like. Fit the fruit closely together, and you will have a cobbler-like cake. Use fewer and space them apart and you will have more cake with some fruit, which makes it easier to cut into slices.
My mind is racing to those frozen cherries I bought for the cobbler story this summer. I’m thinking Sour Cherry Torte.
What about you?
Have a great weekend!
- xo, Anne