For A Sweet New Year

I originally wrote this piece for Combined Jewish Philanthropies to help get word out about their Fast to Feed initiative. A number of people contacted me offline for the plum cake recipe, so I’ve decided to also share the post and the recipe here.

Recently, Prism asked me to teach a class on how to bake plum cake for Rosh Hashanah. So what qualifies me as a plum cake expert? I guess I have to credit my Mom’s family. They are  German – yekkes, as they would proudly say – and my Oma would always bake a zwetschgenkuchen (or some say pflaumenkuchen), a traditional plum cake, for the holiday. Someone recently asked me about the looming symbolism of the plum for Rosh Hashana, hoping to find some sort of sweet correlation as with the apples and honey. Well, to be honest, as far as I know, late August and early September was when the Italian plums were ripe and hung heavy on the trees of the German and Alsatian countryside. So plum cake for Rosh Hashana made sense. And was always delicious.

A few years back I made a zwetschgenkuchen to bring to my mom’s for the holiday. I used the pitch-perfect plum torte recipe from the New York Times archives. The plums were wrapped in soft pillows of batter, and topped with cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Just splendid. But when Prism asked me to lead the plum cake baking class, my mom jumped at the chance to share a genuine kuchen recipe with me.

It turns out my Oma, along with millions of other Germans Jews before her, based not just their plum cakes, but their general baked goods, on a mürberteig, a  “shortcrust dough.” This morning I took the recipe for a test run, cutting the butter into the flour, making pebbles of dough that eventually formed a ball to kneed and roll out.

We hosted friends for the taste testing that afternoon. As it happens, they are Mormon and, as strange as it sounds, we actually understand the choices we’ve each made through our respective religious outlooks. My not eating pig and shellfish is similar to their choice of not drinking alcohol or coffee.

When I told them about Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Fast to Feed program, they got it. As I explained, Jews observing Yom Kippur abstain from eating and drinking. Why not take the money you’d be spending on food during that day, and donate it to a program that feeds one of the 700,000 people that go hungry every day? Well, it turns out that Mormons have a fast on the first Sunday of every month, and the money they’d be spending on food is donated to feed the hungry. No kidding.

The plum cake was fantastic, and I’m thrilled to be teaching my family’s tradition on Thursday night.

 Zwetschgenkuchen: Traditional German Plum Cake

This sweet dessert starts with a Murberteig, a mellow or short dough, which is the basis of many German baked goods. Simply, it’s a shortbread dough.

For this recipe, you will need a pastry cutter, a large bowl, a rolling pin, a dough scraper, and a tart pan.


2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup sugar

Pinch of salt

¼ lb. butter

1 egg, beaten


Cube the butter and place in freezer while you gather and measure out the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix them together with a whisk or a large spoon.

Sprinkle the chilled butter cubes over the flour and begin working them in with the pastry blender, using it to scoop and redistribute the mixture as needed so all parts are worked evenly. Soon enough, all of the butter pieces will be the size of tiny peas.

Make a well in the center of the bowl. Add the beaten egg and using a spatula, mix thoroughly. Soon enough, the dough will come together. Knead the dough on a breadboard/hard counter.

This dough has a very high butter content, so refrigerate it while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Plum topping

2 lbs. of plums

¾ cups sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped almonds

Halve and pit the plums. Slice the fruit into quarters. Set fruit aside.

Chop the nuts. Place in bowl with the sugar and cinnamon. Stir.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator. Flour your counter, the dough in the middle and the rolling pin. Start rolling your dough lightly from the center out. You’re not going to get it all flat in one roll or even twenty; be patient and it will crack less. Roll it a few times in one direction, lift it up and rotate it a quarter-turn and repeat. Re-flour the counter and the top of the dough as needed to avoid sticking.

Roll the dough out to a little more diameter of your tart pan, enough to cover the entire the inner sides of the pan. Using the dough scraper, gently move the rolled-out dough onto and press into the pan. Don’t worry if you get a crack or hole; just use some of the excess from the edges to patch it up!

Starting with the outer rim, arrange the sliced plums in a circle on dough.

Evenly sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon and nuts on top of the plums

Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.


This Is Just To Say

I talk a good game about loving my CSA and avoiding bananas because they’re shipped in from god knows where, but I’m a complete pushover when it comes to a sale on summer fruit. I would love to say I find all my berries at my local farmer’s market, but the truth is, when I swing by Star Market on the way home for milk, I always stop off in the produce section to see what’s on sale. Most women admit to a weakness for shoe sales; for me, it’s all about berries and stone fruit.

So it shouldn’t be such a surprise that last week I found myself on a lunch break at the Asian market Super 88, piling up on plums for a quarter and apricots that were three for a dollar. And I should know better. Given my Food Studies background, I know full well about the plight of the migrant worker making pennies an hour picking my fruit. In fact, I’m currently reading The American Way of Eating,Terrie McMillan’s journalistic exposé on how Americans eat.

I actually debated posting this recipe because the fruit was so inexpensive. I hemmed and hawed. I waited another day. I ate more cake. I conferenced with Sylvie this afternoon, asking her if she would be a disappointed Cheap Beets reader if I posted this recipe. As she succinctly put it: “I am never disappointed by cake recipes.” So onward we go!

When I discovered we had leftover buttermilk in the house from a cake that Rich baked for his office – a real humdinger of a birthday cake, the Dorie Greenspan one with lemon and layers of raspberry filling, all fluffed up with coconut – I decided to bake something. I found this recipe in Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day cookbook. It used up my plums and the buttermilk, and it called for whole wheat flour, so of course it’s healthy, right?

Although the recipe calls for fine-grain natural cane sugar, I used the white stuff in my pantry. To make it fine-grain, I whirled it in my food processor for about 15 seconds. I used zests from two lemons, instead of three, only because I couldn’t find a third in my crisper.

I should also make it clear that while this is a tasty plum cake, this in no way measures up to Marion Barros’ plum torte, the platonic ideal of a plum cake recipe. Rich wanted me to make that clear. He also said that my cheap Asian market plums probably weren’t even picked in this country, and that they were probably loaded with heavy metals. But we’re just going to ignore that…

I was a little nervous about removing this one from the oven before it was fully baked. It looked a little loose in places, but Heidi notes, “You don’t want to overbake this cake in particular. It will end up on the dry side, more like a scone if you’re not careful.” She goes on to suggest serving it with a “floppy dollop of maple-sweetened whipped cream.” That sure does sound nice, but maple seems so fall to me.

In terms of prepping the plums: “Some plums can be difficult. With a sharp knife, slice off two lobes as close to the pit as you can get. Cut each lobe into 4 pieces, eight total. Now slice off the two lobes remaining on the pit.”

Buttermilk Plum Cake


2 ½ cups/11 oz/310 g whole wheat pastry flour

1 Tablespoon aluminum-free baking powder

½ cup/2.5 oz/70 g fine-grain natural cane sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 ½ cups/355 ml buttermilk

¼ cup/2 oz/60 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled a little

Grated zest of 3 lemons

8 to 10 plums (ripe, but not overly ripe), thinly sliced

3 Tablespoons large-grain raw sugar or turbinado sugar


Preheat the oven to 400F/205C with a rack in the top third of the oven. Butter and flour an 11-inch (28cm) round tart/quiche pan, or line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Alternately, you can make this cake in a 9 by 13-inch (23 by 33cm) rectangular baking dish; just keep a close eye on it near the end of the baking time.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, fine-grain sugar, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. Whisk in the melted (but not hot) butter and the lemon zest. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and stir briefly, until just combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it out toward the edges a bit. Scatter the plums across the stop, then sprinkle with the large-grain sugar.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake has set. A toothpick to the center should come out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Once I was a Plum Tree

There is a reason why The New York Times reprints this recipe every year.

One of the nice things about biking along the Charles is the built-in pit stop at Whole Foods on River Street. OK, OK, I like going to Whole Foods on the weekends. In fact, there’s a Whole Foods sweet spot. Around 1PM on the weekends, I guarantee you vendors will have their products on display with samples galore. I stopped planning weekend lunches long ago, for I know that there will always be some cheese, olives, and a bite of something interesting, be it ful medames, cranberry walnut bread, or even a cannoli, all which I have enjoyed in the past six months at local Whole Foods.

A few weeks back, I dropped by the Whole Foods for my weekend repast, and was shocked to find a display of plums on sale for .99/lb. Yes! At Whole Foods, AKA Whole Paycheck. As luck would have it, I had stumbled across a plum cake recipe the day before which looked very easy. I bought half a dozen plums and biked home.

Plums will only be in season for another week and a half.

And, the plum cake was divine! We gobbled it up that night. Seriously, we destroyed that cake, and there were only three of us at dinner. It was soft. It was buttery. It was moist. It was the best plum cake I’ve ever had.

We devoured it.

The next day I biked straight to the Whole Foods from work, sighed when I realized the sale was ending that day, loaded up my basket, went home, and was thrilled to discover the recipe doubled perfectly. I wrapped one plum cake in the freezer for the next time we have surprise dinner guests with a sweet tooth, and brought the other cake to my mom’s for Rosh Hashana.

I share this story with you only now because I realize plum season is coming to a close, and I want to encourage you to buy the last of the plums and make this cake.

This recipe isn’t very secret. In fact, it is the most requested recipe The New York Times has ever published, and it has been published at least once a year since its first printing in 1981.

Original Plum Torte (or, as my mother said, “Svetchakuchen”)

by Marian Burros


3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 cup unbleached flour, sifted

1 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

2 eggs

12 halves pitted purple plums

sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon for topping

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.

3. Spoon the batter into a spring form of 8,9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit.

The dough magically rises in the oven, encasing these purple gems.

Note: I did the plums the skin side up the first time but thought the cake was a little soggy around where they’d sunken into the batter. Next time I did them skin facing down, figuring that would help with that problem. It made a little difference, but you can do it either way and the cake will turn out great.

4. Bake one hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.

5. To serve torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.

NOTE: To freeze, double-wrap the tortes in foil, place in a plastic bag and seal.