Friday, July 29, 2011

Plum Delicious. Recipe: Plum Cake

One of the pleasures of summer is the arrival of stone fruits in the market, and I'm a sucker for all of them.  I love fresh, ripe peaches, plums, nectarines, and the fairly new pluots (a cross of plums and apricots).  The only problem is that they tend to be too hard when you buy them.  So you leave them in a bowl or bag on the counter, and then suddenly you have a bushel of ripe fruit that you have to eat in the next 45 seconds or it will spoil.  And of course, I've always bought too much.  So that's an excuse to bake--what better?

Here's a really tasty recipe for a cake topped with plums.  It's simple and not too sweet, and it allows the flavor of the fruit to shine.  You could do this with other fruit, too:  peaches, pears, or apples would work well, I think.  But it's awfully good with plums.  One nice thing about this recipe is that it uses the ordinary, garden-variety plums.  Most cake recipe call for the harder-to-find (but delicious) small Italian prune plums.

PLUM CAKE  (click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe)


4 or 5 large plums, pitted and cut into wedges

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
½ cup oil (such as canola)
½ cup milk
2 large eggs
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar combined with ½ tablespoon ground cinnamon)
1 tablespoon butter


1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2.  Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl and whisk to combine.

3.  Whisk together the eggs, oil, milk, lemon zest and juice in another small bowl.

4.  Combine the wet and dry ingredients and stir until it forms a smooth but thick batter.

5.  Pour the batter into a greased 9” springform pan.

6.  Arrange the plum slices on top of the batter.  I start with a ring around the outside edge and make a second ring inside that.

7.  Sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar and dot the top of the cake with butter.

8.  Bake in the preheated oven for about 50 minutes to an hour, until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean (baking time will vary depending on the juiciness of the fruit).  Cool slightly in the pan, then release the sides and cool further until you can safely remove the bottom.

9.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a garnish of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if you like.


Of course I bake too much in the summer, and my weight-conscious family worries about the consequences of eating all those goodies. So I've been taking advantage of the fact that we serve snacks at our weekly choir rehearsals:  I bring a recipe I'm trying out for break time in rehearsal.  There's never a crumb left, even of the things I think haven't turned out absolutely the way I wanted.

We have guests this weekend, so I've got one of these in the oven now.  It smells fabulous, and I can't wait to tuck into it later this evening.  Or maybe I won't wait--I might sneak a piece warm from the oven when no one is looking.  Heck, I'm the cook.  I get to do that if I want.

ADDENDUM:  I made the cake pictured here earlier in the week with ripe pluots, and it was especially good.  Today's I made with ripe plums, and it was a little too tart.  I suggest you taste your fruit.  If it seems a bit mouth-puckering, try macerating it in some sugar (maybe with a bit of kirsch or other fruit-flavored liqueur) for a few minutes before you put it on the cake.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Recipe: Clafoutis (a summer dessert)

The day that sweet cherries go on sale for less than $5 a pound is always a great day for me.  Since I was a kid, I've loved to eat them by the bowlful; a few years ago, though, I tasted this dessert for the first time.  So now there's even more reason to look forward to finding good cherries in the market.  If you can get the Ranier variety, they're especially good, but any sweet cherry will work.

The recipe comes from my good friend, Claudine, who sings in the summer choir.  She's French, down-to-earth, and a great cook.  Nothing fancy (well, maybe a little fancy), but just plain delicious.  This is a good example.  It's the sort of thing French country housewives throw together without measuring anything, so it's pretty forgiving stuff.  That hasn't prevented me from trying to refine the recipe as much as possible.

See, Claudine's recipe was all in metric units--even the oven temperature.  So I had to convert it, and that took several attempts, because there are discrepancies about converting weight to volume when it comes to sugar and flour.  So, tant pis, I had to make a lot of clafoutis.  The truth is, none of them has ever turned out bad; all have been delicious.  That includes the time I forgot to put in the flour.  So don't stress too much; just whip this up when you have the chance, and you'll love it.  One note:  in the most authentic recipes for this dish, you leave the pits in the cherries.  The theory is that they taste better--stronger--when the cherries cook with the pits inside.  I was skeptical, so I pitted the cherries--once.  It's a messy job (your fingers will be stained purple for days and your fingernails will look black), and the fact is, it does taste better with the pits in.  Warn your guests when you serve it (or have it all for yourself, and forget the guests).  If it really bothers you to have the pits in there, then be my guest, pit the cherries.  But, trust me, it tastes better if you don't, and it's a whole lot less work.


(for a printer-friendly version of the recipe, click here)

1 - 2 lbs. sweet cherries--enough to fill a deep 9" pie dish in one generous layer (it's OK if there are more like 2 layers)
4 eggs
½ c. sugar (divided)
1 c. flour
1-1/4 c. milk
2 T. butter, softened
2 T. kirsch (if you can't get kirsch, cherry-flavored vodka also works)
1 T. vanilla
pinch of salt

1.  Butter a 9-inch deep dish pie plate generously and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2.  Remove the stems from the cherries, but leave the pits in.  Rinse the cherries in cold water.  Put them in the dish, sprinkle them with 1/4 c. sugar and the kirsch.  Give everything a good stir, spread the cherries out evenly, and allow them to stand for at least 15 minutes.

3.  Beat the eggs thoroughly.  Add the milk, the remaining ¼ c. sugar, butter, flour, vanilla, and salt, beating thoroughly after each addition.

4.  Pour the batter over the cherries in the dish.  The pan will be quite full.  Bake in the preheated oven  for 45 minutes, or until set.  The clafoutis will rise and dome quite lavishly.  Test for doneness by inserting a knife or needle into the custard—it should come out clean.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  (As it cools, it will collapse, but that's fine.)

This dish always makes me think I'm sitting in a French farm kitchen eating from a scarred oaken table.  I like food that fires the imagination that way.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'm here... (and grilling London broil)

I know.  It's been singularly silent here for about a month.  It's been a hectic month!  Lots of traveling, long periods without good internet access, and lots of big projects with not enough time to accomplish them.  Ironically, the summer is in some ways the busiest time of year for me.  I think it's the lack of routine that does it.

We're in Maine, which is gorgeous (see photo, taken on Monday at Witch Hole Pond).  Miriam is in Germany studying singing and opera (tough life).  Elizabeth is with us in Maine, teaching at a summer camp where she is making a sensation (of course).

I gave a lecture this past Tuesday that involved a lot of new research done very quickly, which partly accounts for my silence.  I showed how the design of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park was heavily influenced by the landscape paintings of Claude as transmitted by Constable, Turner, and the painters of the Hudson River School, and also by the landscape designs of "Capability" Brown.  It was enormously interesting; I got to scrabble around in some archives here on the island, and I made some wonderful new friends.  Who says scholarship has to be boring?

HOW TO MAKE A GREAT LONDON BROIL(more a method than a recipe).
Naturally, I'm cooking.  This evening, I grilled some shoulder steaks (i.e., London broil), and they were especially yummy.  To do it, just combine about 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (we didn't have any, so I used cider vinegar, and it was just fine), about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, about 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped, and about a tablespoon of whatever dried herbs you have around and like.  (I usually use thyme, but there wasn't much, so I threw in some oregano and some red pepper flakes.)  This will form more of a paste than a thin marinade.  Smear it on both sides of the steak(s) (I had 2 each weighing about a pound and a half), and let them sit at room temperature for about 2 hours, or cover them and set them in the fridge overnight.  Sprinkle the steaks generously on both sides with kosher salt and a liberal grinding of fresh pepper just before you throw them on the grill.  Cook 1-inch thick steaks on a hot grill for about 5 minutes per side for medium.  Take them off the grill and let them sit for about 5 minutes before you carve them.  You may have to stand over them, wielding your carving knife menacingly, because they will smell terrific, and everyone will want to nibble at them.  Enjoy.  We had baked sweet potatoes, steamed asparagus, and a tossed salad alongside. 

On a completely unrelated note, I am trying to reduce the quantity of junk email I receive.  It was getting to be 20 or 30 solicitation emails a day, and I just don't feel like going through all that stuff.  So I've been hitting "unsubscribe" a lot--it's working.  I am amused and slightly annoyed, however, by this message, which is typical when you unsubscribe:  "Your email address has been successfully removed from our email subscription list. Please keep in mind it can take 7-10 business days to completely remove your email address from our records."  Really?  Seven to ten DAYS?  When I hit "delete" on my computer, the stuff goes away pretty much instantaneously.  Haven't you hit "delete" when you didn't mean to and sat shouting at the computer, "No! No! Noooooo!!!!  I NEEDED that!!!!!!!"  So how come that kind of delete happens in about a nanosecond, but removing my address from a junk email list takes a week?  And my real question is this:  how do I get that 7-day grace period for the delete key on my computer?

Just one of the mysteries of modern life, I guess.  Hang in there.  Have a great summer.  Do something fun.