- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

I have to be careful when plum season comes along, usually toward late summer. If I blink, I might miss it.

In fact, this year I almost did. A mild winter where I live has brought plums to Southern California almost a month earlier than usual. But we’re still in the peak of season right now, and plums will linger into early autumn.

That means the time is ripe to make the most of plums. Which is easy to do, considering the delightful variety available in food stores everywhere, plums with romantic names like Queen Rosa, Greengage, Damson, Black Amber or Elephant Heart, or that old standby Santa Rosa.

Good plum growers aim to pick the fruit when they are ripe, as the fruit’s sugar levels stop rising once it leaves the tree. That means that the best way to make sure your plums are sweet is to taste them, which you’ll have the best opportunity to do at a farmers’ market stall where sample slices are usually there for the taking. In general, the plums you buy should feel heavy for their size, and should give to light fingertip pressure.

At home, store them in the refrigerator, where they should keep for several days. If they are still slightly hard, however, you can soften them up by leaving them in a paper bag at room temperature for a day or two.

Though plums are wonderful eaten out of hand, one of my favorite ways to enjoy them is as a fruit tart filling. Before you shy away from the thought of baking, in summer or at any time, let me tell you that the recipe that follows is one of the easiest and most enjoyable pastries you’ll ever make. You don’t even need to make the very easy-to-prepare Sugar Dough I call for; 1 1/2 pounds (750 g) of store-bought frozen pastry will do fine.

And there is no need to line a pie shell or form a top crust; just lay out the dough on a baking sheet, add the filling, turn up the rim, and bake it. Though my recipe describes the tart as more or less circular, the shape is not even important: Everything will look beautiful and taste delicious whether your tart is oval, square, rectangular, or resembling an amoebae. Cut it into wedges, top with vanilla ice cream if you like, and dessert is ready.

Now that’s what I call plum perfect!

EASY FREE-FORM PLUM TART

Serves 8

SUGAR DOUGH

2 1/3 cups (580 ml) cake flour or pastry flour

1/3 cup (80 ml) granulated sugar

1/2 pound (250 g) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces

2 egg yolks

1 to 2 tablespoons heavy cream

TART FILLING

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

8 large ripe plums, halved, pitted, and cut into slices 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick

1/4 cup (60 ml) granulated sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon plum brandy (optional)

1 egg

Powdered sugar

First, make the Sugar Dough: In a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade, combine the flour and sugar. Add the butter and process until the texture resembles fine meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 1 tablespoon of the cream. Scrape into the processor and process until a ball begins to form, drizzling in the additional tablespoon of cream, if necessary, to help the dough come together. Remove the dough from the machine and, on a lightly floured surface, press down into a circle. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Before assembling the tart, preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

Remove the Sugar Dough from the refrigerator and unwrap it. On a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to a rough circle 14 inches (35 cm) in diameter. Lift up the dough and transfer it to a nonstick baking sheet. Put the baking sheet in the refrigerator while you prepare the plums.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the plums and saute just until they begin to soften slightly, about 3 minutes. Gently stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Remove from the heat and, if you like, drizzle in the plum brandy. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Spoon the cooled plums into the center of the dough, spreading them evenly and leaving a 2-inch (5-cm) border all around the edge. Fold the edge up over the plums, leaving the fruit in the center of the tart exposed.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg. Brush the exposed rim of dough with the egg. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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