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.
Amanda Hesser, who compiled and tested 1,400 recipes dating back to the 1850s, when the New York Times began covering food, the James Beard award-winning 2010 Essential New York Times Cookbook, said that when she asked readers for recipe suggestions to include the in book, she received no less than 247 for this one, and suspects that is because it’s a nearly perfect recipe. There are only eight ingredients, seven of which you probably have around and, if you took my hint earlier this week that “buttery plums” were coming later this week, you might even have the eighth. There are only four brief, simple steps, and the batter seems so simple (“like pancake batter,” says Hesser) that you might have understandable doubts about the greatness of this cake.
They shouldn’t last. Two magical things happen when a massive heap of purple Italian plums are added and the cake is thickly coated with cinnamon and sugar, the first is that the cake rises up around them and buckles them in, leaving the cake riddled with deep pockets of jammy plum puddles that impart a sweet-sour complexity to an otherwise simple butter cake base. The second magical thing that will happen, if you take my advice, is to always start eating this cake on the second day. Although it will be hard to resist (deep pockets of plum puddles and all that, believe me, I know), what’s true of most cakes with fresh fruit — that in the oven, the fruit softens and bakes, but upon resting, the sweet juices seep out and become one with the cake around it, making it so incredibly moist, decadent and almost custard-like around the fruit pebbles that you won’t regret waiting — is triply true here, when there’s just so much fruit for so little cake.
Plums, previously: Plum Kuchen (this cake’s yeasted, German cousin), Dimply Plum Cake (from Dorie Greenspan; a wonderful cake that I have to confess just got bumped among my favorites for this one, oops), Single-Crust Apple and Crumb Pie (with a shortbread-like lid, perfect for this time of year), Sugar Plum Crepes with Ricotta and Honey (if nothing else, for the easiest crepe recipe for beginners or crepe-phobes), Hazelnut Plum Crumb Tart (a bit of a project, but worth it)
One year ago: Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls
Two years ago: Pear, Cranberry and Gingersnap Crumble
Three years ago: Mushroom Lasagna
Four years ago: Quiche Lorraine
Five years ago: Bread Without A Timetable, Black and White Cookies, Balsamic Glazed Sweet and Sour Cippoline
Six years ago: Spaghetti with Chorizo and Almonds and Couscous and Feta-Stuffed Peppers
Seven years ago: Summer Squash Soup, Giardinera and Orange Chocolate Chunk Cake
This cake has been around for so long, it’s seen its fair share of variations as readers demands for tortes for all seasons and food trends far exceeded the reach of the original recipe. There are versions where the sugar has been cut back to 3/4 cup (feel free to, although I didn’t find the 1 cup too sweet at all), plus versions with other fruit (blueberries, apples or cranberries too) and even a low-fat version with mashed bananas and applesauce. (The version I had clipped didn’t even include the lemon juice, but I think it would have been excellent here, so I’m including it.) But I think that the original cake was perfect as printed, and deserves a chance to end up
laminated and framed, er, bookmarked/pinned for your permanent early fall bliss.
[Updated 10/14/13 to add] As I mentioned above, there are a lot of different versions, and many of them include 1 teaspoon of cinnamon instead of 1 tablespoon. In fact, I received a note from Amanda Hesser over the weekend giving me a heads-up that the 1 tablespoon listed in the Essential New York Times Cookbook was actually a typo, and should have been 1 teaspoon. In fact, the very original version in the Times had 1 tablespoon too, but all of the future ones had only 1 teaspoon, suggesting that it had been a typo there too. I made it with 1 tablespoon and thought it worked, but I realize that 1 teaspoon is a much more common level for a cake. Do use the level you’re most comfortable with.
This is ideal with purple Italian prune plums, but if you can’t find them, other plums will do.
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder (the aluminum-free kind, if you can find it)
Large pinch of salt
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar plus 1 to 2 tablespoon (depending on sweetness of plums)
1/2 cup (115 grams or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
12 smallish purple Italian purple plums, halved and pitted
2 teaspoons (10 ml) fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon or tablespoon ground cinnamon (see Note up top for explanation)
Heat oven to 350°F. Sift or whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a larger bowl, cream butter and 1 cup sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.
Spoon batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan (but if you’re worried, you can always lightly coat it first with butter or a nonstick spray) and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, all over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle the top with lemon juice, then cinnamon, then remaining sugar.
Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into a center part of the cake comes out free of batter (but of course not plum juice), about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack.
Once cool, if you can stand it, and I highly recommend trying, leave it covered at room temperature overnight as this cake is even better on the second day, when those plum juices further release into the cake around it, becoming not just “cake with plum,” but cakeplumughyum (official terminology, there).