This may look like an ordinary piece of plum cake, but it is not. It is a famous plum cake, so renowned that I suspect half of you out there have already made it, and the rest of you will soon commit it to memory, because this cake is like that — it is worthwhile enough to become your late September/early October staple. First published in the New York Times by Marian Burros in 1983, the recipe had been given to her by Lois Levine, her co-author on the excellent Elegant but Easy), the recipe was published every year during plum season between then and 1995, when the editor of the food section told readers they were cutting them off, and it was time to cut it out, laminate it and put it on the refrigerator door because they were on their own if they lost it. As if anyone would dare.
There are few paths that led to this recipe but the main one is that it instantly reminded me of the kind of crumb pies I remember from bakeries growing up, not the kind with a crumble topping but ones with a crust also composed of pressed crumbs. And guys, I love a buttery, flaky, ethereal pie crust woven over cherries and bronzed in the oven as much as the next person, but the idea of choosing it over a crumbly composite of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and sometimes nuts is pure madness. But the filling gave me pause — a custard? a custard that suspends fruit? How odd, right? Or delicious? I went back and forth over the odd-versus-delicious line for the better part of a decade before deciding to finally make it this week. A decade. This recipe was actually published in a 1999 Martha Stewart Living. I was living in Washington D.C., dating a terrible idea and trying to figure out how I could find a place in New York that didn’t charge more than $600/month rent. This recipe is ancient history, people.
One of the things that has surprised me the most as I’m chugging my way along to my manuscript’s finish line is how little clear my vision was for it from the beginning, and how little I’ve erred from my original list of recipe ideas, as in real life, I am a bafflingly indecisive person. “What should we order for dinner?” can send me into a tailspin. “Which colander looks best from Amazon?” will lead me to read 30 minutes of reviews. And yet, half the recipes that are lined up for the book right now (except the breakfast section; we should definitely not discuss that again) are pretty much as I scribbled the ideas while my then-newborn was napping in the fall of 2009. It’s probably for the best I jotted it all down then because my brain has probably not been so centered for 5 minutes since.
Early fall is a ridiculous time to get cooking block. Inspiration is everywhere as nearly everything that could possibly be in season currently is. The markets are flooded with great stuff; summer tomatoes, eggplant, corn and peppers fight for space on tables with apples, pears, greens and winter squash. But somehow — when I’m not playing SuperMom or Good Football Wife or gushing over tiny fall outfits — I’ve been at an impasse. The summer stuff is waning; the last tomatoes I brought home were… rough, to put it nicely. And given that the butternut squash and collards are the last bits of fresh produce we’ll see until asparagus spears pop up in May 2011, seven very long months from now, I’m sure you understand why I put off cooking with them for as long as possible.
I’ve been curious to make a yeasted coffee cake for years, but every time I got close to making one, I decided against it. Would it be dry or overly-firm? Would it taste too much like bread? How would I know a good one if I’ve probably never had an authentic German kuchen — a general name for a type of sweet, yeasted cake, usually served with coffee — one? I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I’m a master at talking myself out of things.