As the trees begin to change colors, a special fruit is just ripening in late summer and early fall. Plums. This particular autumn plum is known by so many descriptions: Italian Prune Plum, Damson Plum, Hungarian Plum, Mirabelle, etc. I never quite know what to call this special plum variety. It’s a European plum. It is oval, with black-blue-purple skin; the fruit inside is an orang-y yellow, sometimes a celadon green-yellow. It’s the plum that is often times artistically depicted in still lifes or on elegant fabrics and table linen, in fruit bowls — the oval jewels, with green leaves attached, elegant and sophisticated, enfolded by a round bowl on a pedestal. My Hungarian Bubbie grew up with a grove of these plum trees (as well as walnuts and cherries) on the grounds of her home. In Denver, I’ve picked baskets of these plums from tree groves at Ekar Farm.
Among the classic Hungarian dishes prepared and most popularly associated with these plums were plum jam (lekvar) and plum brandy (slivovitz). For all of you who have sipped some slivovitz raising your schnapps glass for a l’chaim, that’s the purple plum I’m talking about.
In the almond shaped pits of these plums live scented kernels of amaretti. As a child, in Jerusalem, an apricot crop was a popular summer fruit. We never discarded the pits. Ajuim, we called them. We saved and savored every single one of them. they became the vehicle for games, our version of American Jacks, or kugelach, as it was known in Yiddish and as we called it. To this day, I save the stones of apricots. In my mind, they are precious play-things. I have followed suit with these aromatic Damson Plums pits, too.
Plum dumplings, the pitted ovals wrapped and boiled in dough, then rolled in buttered braisel (bread crumbs) and finished off with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, are as lovely and charming as they sound. Adding these special blue prune plums to apple compote is perfect as well, and by now an annual tradition. But for me, baking these plums into cakes is the classic. The variety is endless. A yeasted plum cake, such as Pflaumenkuchen? With streusel or without? A plum crisp or crumble? A fanned out plum pie or galette? Or, best of all, a plain cinnamon sugar dusted cake?
Each European language has its name for this plum and its accompanying pastry. In Alsace, it’s quetsch. In Switzerland, these plum pies are Zwetschgenwaehen. In Germany, Zwetschgenkuchen. I know, not only are these plum cakes or pies divine, it sure is a fun word I adore saying! Nothing like running through your mental holiday baking list, and arriving at your next task: Zwetschgenkuchen!
There are many versions to these plum cakes and pastries. All are delicious. Simple black-blue-purple ovals transform in the heat of the baking process into streaks of scarlet and crimson, bursting with sweet-tart juicy intensity of magenta that soaks into the cake. Like a dye, it clings to the cake and changes its color.
When it comes to the German Zwetschgenkuchen, which is more of an open faced tart, everyone loves this beautiful dessert. For a crowd, you may as well double the recipe and bake it in a pizza pan. It’s that easy and that delicious. One summer, that’s exactly what I did.
Unlike the rosier colored plums, it’s not easy to come by these Damsons. You have to know where to shop to find them, which stall at the market or which little fruit boutique to find them at.
Come late August, and you start looking for them. This plum has a brief season. I know someone who has an abundance of these trees in her backyard. This plum tree actually grows well here in Colorado. When the oval plums start ripening, she fills baskets of them and delivers them to friends as gifts. That is a dream of mine too. As a little girl when we moved to Denver, to our great delight we had one of these damson trees in our backyard. Mysteriously, after we left for a year, and returned, it was gone. Time and again, I have thought of gifting my mother this tree and planting it in the backyard once again.
Because if there is a cake that means “mother” to me, it’s this plum cake. The scent alone, when I open the oven, hits me with a force of nostalgia and olfactory memory. Year after year, my mother would wait until these plums were in season. The first of us children to spy them at a market or shop would burst in with “Ema! Pete [of Pete’s Fruits and Vegetables] has the plums!!” or “The plums are here!” How we waited for those warm plum cakes. Year after year, my mother baked these plums into divine dimpled round plum cakes, or tortes. The heady scent of cinnamon-sugar and lemon zest infused with melted plums was our nirvana. We’d sit around waiting for them, one by one, to come out of the oven. We all got a slice of one warm cake. The rest — to the freezer!
From Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot, these cakes, this Zwetschgenkuchen, Pflaumenkuchen or plain old Plum Cakes, however you’d like to call it, saw us through many kiddushes, desserts, holiday coffee snacks, Sukkot treats and, occasionally, even breakfast.
My mother prepared so many of them that there was always an abundant winter stash, even taking us all the way through the Shabbat preceding Passover, when we would empty the freezer of any chametz.
Following in my dear mother’s culinary footsteps, over the years I’ve pitted, halved and sliced many a plums, making all versions of these Pflaumenkuchens. This past Rosh Hashanah I baked the plain plum torte. Over coffee, my mother and I kept making sure to straighten out the line of the cake in the pan, and by the end of the holiday it was of, course, gone.
For the third time this week, I just shared a recipe for Zwetschgenkuchen — the open faced pie version — from Joan Nathan. Today, this Zwetschgenkuchen is what I am baking in honor of Sukkot. So I figured I ought to share the recipe with you, my readers.
For the crust:
1 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
12 tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine, cut into pieces
Blend in food processor until just combined and then add 1 egg yolk until incorporated.
Place in a 9” or 10” ungreased pan. Refrigerate for about a half hour. Bake at 450ºF for ten minutes. Reduce heat to 375ºF and bake an additional five minutes. Cool.
4 tbsp. plum jam (I’ve used whatever I have on hand and it’s fine)
1 tbsp. brandy
Mix and brush on pie crust.
1 1/2 pounds of Italian plums, sliced in half (if using other plums slice each plum into four wedges)
Mix into plums a 1/2 tsp. cinnamon and 1 tsp. of lemon zest.
Starting from the perimeter of the pie crust, fan out the plum slices in concentric circles, until you reach the center.
Bake at 350ºF. As soon as pie is removed warm from the oven, sprinkle a 1/4 cup sugar over the pie.
There you have it. A beautiful, flower-petal magenta Zwetschgenkuchen.