- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

The first Italian plums or prune plums that appear at the end of August always make me feel a little sad. They are a sure sign that summer is ending and fall is on its way.

Yet each year when I see the first prune plums, joyful childhood memories of finding them in my school lunches mix with the desire to make something tasty during the short season.

The two recipes that follow are personal favorites. Swiss plum tart is a specialty from Zurich that I have been making regularly for almost 30 years, since my cooking apprenticeship in Switzerland. The creamy custard blends perfectly with the melting texture of the baked plums.

Plum crumb cake is more like a plum kuchen. It’s a rich cake base covered with fruit and a crumb topping that is perfect for brunch or following a light meal.

When choosing prune plums, look for those that are fairly firm with unblemished skins. The color should be an even dark purple. If you are using them within a day, store at room temperature. Refrigerate for longer storage.

Plum crumb cake

This can be made with apricots when they are available or with frozen sour cherries at other times of the year.

CAKE:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for buttering pan

¾ cup sugar

1 egg

3 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla

1¼ cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

15 to 18 prune plums

Crumb topping:

1¼ cups unbleached flour

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Butter a 10-inch round cake pan, 2 inches deep, and line the bottom with a disk of parchment or waxed paper.

For the cake, in a large mixer bowl, beat the butter and sugar until soft and light. Add the whole egg and continue beating until light. Add the yolks one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Sift together the flour and baking powder and stir into the batter. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.

Rinse, halve and pit the plums. Arrange the plums on the batter, cut side up, in concentric rows, overlapping slightly, leaving a margin of about 1 inch around the edge.

For the crumb topping, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon in a bowl. Melt the butter and stir it in evenly. Rub the mixture to coarse crumbs by hand. Scatter the crumbs over the plums and the batter at the edge as evenly as possible.

Bake the cake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for about 15 minutes and invert a plate over it. Invert onto the plate and lift off the pan. Peel off the paper and invert a rack on the cake. Invert onto the rack and cool. Makes 12 servings.

Swiss plum tart

Known in German-speaking countries as Zwetschkenkuchen, this tart is a fall specialty throughout most of Europe. Be careful not to overbake the tart, or the custard cream will not be delicate.

Try this with the crumb topping from plum crumb cake, scattering the crumbs on the filling before baking the tart. Or scatter ½ cup sliced almonds on the filling before baking and dust the baked tart with confectioners’ sugar after cooling.

DOUGH:

1 cup unbleached flour

3 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter

1 large egg

FILLING:

12 to 15 Italian plums

⅓ cup sugar

2 tablespoons unbleached flour

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

⅔ cup whipping cream

3 egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla

Cinnamon, optional

Unsweetened whipped cream, optional

For the dough, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl and stir to mix. Rub in the butter by hand or with a pastry blender until the mixture is very fine, but still cool and powdery. Beat egg and stir into the flour mixture with a fork, continuing to stir until the dough masses together.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and squeeze it together well several times. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate about 1 hour or until firm.

Place dough on a lightly floured surface and flour it. Roll dough into a disk about ⅛-inch thick and fit it into a buttered 10-inch removable-bottom tart pan. Press dough well into the bottom and up sides of the pan and trim off the excess by rolling over the rim with the rolling pin.

For the filling, rinse, halve and pit the plums. Arrange them, cut side up, on the dough.

In a bowl, mix sugar and flour. Stir in the lemon zest, then the cream gradually. Add yolks, whisk smooth and stir in vanilla. Pour custard cream over the plums, making sure that the mixture does not overflow. Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Bake the tart on the bottom shelf of preheated 350-degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until the custard is set and the dough baked through. Cool tart in the pan on a rack. Unmold and serve with unsweetened whipped cream, if you wish. Makes about 8 servings.

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