Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Plum Cake

Posted October 13, 2008
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Here is the lovely unbaked plum cake.

And here it is, out of the oven, with the plums looking like little craters of sweet-tart softness, which is what they are. Not the live-action fork of gobbling children.

Yes, it was five minutes before dinner, and yes, the kids burned their mouths on the burning-hot plums. But who can deny such lovely children a piece of newborn cake?

Plum cake.

Birdy rounding out her meal with another piece. The blurry forks are killing me. I think my kids must eat more shovelingly than I’d ever noticed.

There is not much that makes me feel more happily maternal than baking a small cake on a weeknight.

And now I'm starting a new paragraph, because that sentence really needs to be left all alone up there. Maybe some of my hundreds of UC Santa Cruz feminist theory students circa 1992-1999 will come upon this, and they'll remember my motorcycle boots and my hockey skates and my badass politics, and they'll be all What the? They'll be all, Hello Professor Mrs. Brady. But I swear, I'm still that exact same person (minus boots and skates). It's just that there's something so delightful about welcoming my family to the table when there's a cake on a plate. The children always oooh and aaah like orphans peeping in a bakery window, and I could kiss those rosy urchin cheeks. And do.

Anyways, this is a perfect fall cake - especially if you've got a dozen purple plums sitting around and waiting for their fifteen minutes of fame. My mother sent me the recipe clipping approximately one million years ago, and she and I between us have baked it at least that many times. It takes just a few minutes to get it into the oven, and comfortably knife-wielding kids might like to help by halving the plums and tugging out their pits. Mine often do those things for me. Why aren't they helping in the pictures, then? Because sometimes nothing makes me feel more happily maternal than baking a small cake all by myself.

Plum Cake
(adapted from the Original Plum Torte recipe published in the New York Times some time in the late 17th century)

This is a dense, buttery cake dotted with sweet-tart plums that have gone silky in the oven. The original recipe calls for neither vanilla nor almond extract, but it asks you to sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon over the cake before baking, which I did for years, until I discovered that I wasn't that crazy about the cinnamon. I have, however, sprinkled a teaspoon of cardamom over it, and that is delicious.

1 stick butter (I use salted), softened
3/4 cup sugar (plus 1 teaspoon)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
12 plums, halved and pitted
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

Heat the oven to 350.

Use an electric mixer (if you have one) to cream together the butter and sugar - or do this all by hand, which is fine. Now add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each, and add the extracts too. Beat in the flour, which you've either sifted or whisked together with the baking powder and salt, and mix until the batter is well combined. (Note: the original recipe has you add the eggs and flour all together, and it turns out I am just too uptight to do it that way, which is good to know about myself.)

Now scrape the very stiff batter into your pan: I use a spring form pan that seems to be 9 1/2 inches across, but you could butter and flour a regular cake pan and use that, need be. Use a rubber spatula to even it out; it will make a very shallow layer, and that's fine.

Now onto the plums, which you've already halved, right? The recipe calls for "purple plums" and I have always used those oblong Italian prune plums, if I can find them, because the pits come out so nicely - but other plums are good too (and maybe even other kinds of juicy fruits altogether - you tell me). Arrange the plum halves skin-side-up in a fancy concentric pattern around the cake. Or else willy-nilly, if you prefer. You will be tempted to put the cut side up because it looks prettier that way - but don't. You want all that lovely plum flesh to bake its juicy way right into your cake. Now sprinkle the cake with a teaspoon of sugar and pop it in the oven to bake until it looks nice and brown and doesn't jiggle anywhere when you, uh, jiggle it - the recipe says an hour, but mine is always done after 45 minutes; if your pan is smaller (and your batter therefore deeper) it may take a bit longer.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Or just plain on a plate, before dinner, because your kids really couldn't wait another minute. Or as a leftover wedge tucked in a lunch box with a funny kind of envy, even though you really don't wish you were a school kid again, navigating your weird lunch in front of everybody else. But still.

Read Catherine's Final Dalai Mama Weekly Blog Entry.

Get a printable version of this recipe.

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Plum Cake

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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