Visions of sugar plums
The sugar plums that ripen in late summer aren’t the ones that sweeten children’s dreams in Moore’s poem about the night before Christmas. Those sugar plums are candies made of dried fruit, sugar and spices–and for most people they’ve become mythical.
What tantalizes me, though, is the European plums of the same name. These are no myth. Their oval shape and delicate flavor take me back to fruit-gathering expeditions in my French grandmother’s garden. And this summer, they’ve inspired Italian plum cake and visions of tarts.
The main plum varieties in America are descendants of an Asian species. The classic American plum has maroon skin so dark it’s almost black. But cousins of the same plum can look like an autumn leaf caught in slow motion: pale yellow, orangy-red, deep ruby. Pluots, plum-apricot hybrids, add even more color variations, including the speckled pink and white of a Dappled Dandy. All of these plums share one thing in common, though: their cute, round shape.
Not so in Europe. Yes, there are round yellow mirabelles, so tiny they look like toy fruit. And there are round green Reine Claudes. But the most common plums of the European species are oval. Their skin is deep purple, their flesh pale lime-yellow.
In America, we call them sugar plums, or Italian plums, and they’re grown primarily to dry into prunes. (In France, the word for plum is actually “prune.”) Their high sugar content makes them ideal for drying and preserving. But you can also find them at farmers markets and grocery stores that have interesting produce departments.
They’re worth tracking down. I love to eat them plain. In fact, it’s my sense of their specialness and rarity here that has made me shy about baking with them. I know tarte aux quetsches is an Alsatian classic, made with what we would call sugar plums. And I’ve been eyeing the tarte aux quetsche recipe in Andre Soltner’s Lutece cookbook ever since it joined the pile of treasures I’ve amassed as part of the research for my book. (“The Alsatian,” Jacques Pepin declared as he introduced me to Andre at the French Culinary Institute in June.) But it’s an Italian plum cake recipe that made me discover how wonderful sugar plums are for baking.
The following cake was an adamant July birthday request. Halved sugar plums are pressed into the batter of an Italian-style cake made with almond flour and egg whites, and then baked until they’re meltingly tender. The almond and plum flavors complement each other beautifully. Dusted with powdered sugar, the cake is both rustic and elegant. It’s just the sort of thing you might eat on a piazza in Italy.
Still, I feel the pull of the French plum tart. For me, it is still mythical. So I have to act before summer’s end. The Lutece cookbook will introduce me to a classic. Then there is Clothilde Dusoulier’s intriguing Plum Tart with Walnut Cream on her Chocolate & Zucchini blog. Based on her mother’s recipe, it combines the Alsatian quetsche tart with a walnut-creme-fraiche filling that is typical of the Perigord region’s walnut tarts. The combination has me dreaming.
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Plum Almond Cake, Italian-style
(adapted from Elaine McCardel’s The Italian Dish blog)
5 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup almond flour
1/2 cup flour
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
6 Italian/sugar plums, halved, pits removed
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round or square baking pan.
Beat the egg whites and sugar in a large bowl until billowy (a few minutes). Fold in the flours. In a separate bowl, combine the melted butter, milk, almond extract and lemon zest. Slowly incorporate into the egg white mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Arrance the plum halves on top, pressing them into the batter a bit. You can arrange them cut-side up or cut-side down.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool, then dust with powdered sugar before serving.