Saturday morning dawned early and grey, and I ran out for a bit into the gloom for breakfast, the paper, and a trip to the farmers’ market. I worried a little about fitting eight people around my table, but I needn’t have entertained such trepidations; all was absolutely well, as it usually is. We may not have needed that last bottle of champagne (though it was icy-cold and absolutely delicious) but the conversation was lively and the food was good — even the ice cream and plum cake, both of which I’d never made before.
I have some tried-and-true recipes I love and use often (see: my lemony salmon and fruity upside-down cake), but it’s good to break away from the old standbys every once in awhile. For some reason this time around — perhaps because I hadn’t done a big dinner in a long time? — dessert had me stumped. I knew I would make something with fruit, but I didn’t want to make a pie or a tarte tatin, and my upside-down cake was out of the question because some of my guests had had it just a few weeks before.
To the plums, then.
First, looked up a few recipes on epicurious, but nothing really caught my eye. Then I remembered something I’d seen ages ago on the Williams-Sonoma recipe index for an “Italian Plum Cake” and it stayed in the back of my mind while I scoured the Internet (but not my cookbooks) for the perfect dessert. Finally, I succumbed to the allure of something with “Italian” in its title (how could it not be good?), even if the ingredients seemed very plain — just butter, eggs, flour, sugar, a bit of cornstarch and citrus zest, and a pound of plums.
Why did I forget that simple is often best? The cake is a kind of plum sandwich; half of the batter is baked for 10 minutes before being layered with halved fruit and topped with the rest of it. The cornstarch miraculously sops up the juice so it is not soggy, but the cake — and plums — are still moist and light. Plain it was not, even when I forewent the Grand Marnier the recipe called for. And the salted butter caramel ice cream … oh, it was so good. I would make it every day, if I had the time.
For my first course, I made a very simple heirloom tomato soup I would also make again, and again — and perhaps you will, too.
We must schedule another big feast when I get back from my trip.
Italian Plum Cake, adapted from williams-sonoma
1 lb. plums, halved and pitted
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
14 Tbs. (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at
4 eggs, separated
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbs. confectioners’ sugar
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
Place the plum halves in a bowl and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar. Set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer set on high speed, beat together the butter and the remaining 1 cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the orange zest, lemon zest and vanilla.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch and baking powder. In another bowl, using the electric mixer fitted with clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.
Fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the egg whites and ending with the whites. Do not overmix. Spread half of the batter in the prepared pan.
Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and arrange the plum halves, cut sides up, on top of the prebaked batter. Carefully spread the remaining batter evenly over the plums. Return to the oven and bake until the cake is lightly browned on top, 50 to 55 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cake to loosen them from the pan.
Let cool for 45 minutes more, then remove the pan sides. Using a small sieve, dust the top of the cake with the confectioners’ sugar (I forgot to do this, and it was fine). Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
Serves 8 to 10.
I served this with David Lebovitz’s recipe for salted butter caramel ice cream, which is a bit of work, but so worth it.
Roasted Heirloom Tomato Soup
5-6 heirloom tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
basil or oregano
Turn the oven to 200 F. Wash the tomatoes and arrange them in a baking pan that has been rubbed with a bit of olive oil. Roast the tomatoes for as many hours as you can; in a pinch, you can slow-roast them for an hour or two, then turn up the heat to 350 F until they are soft. Remove from oven and let cool.
In a soup pot, sautee the onion and garlic in a good amount of olive oil until soft. Remove the skins from the tomatoes and throw into the pot along with the bay leaves. With a spoon, vigorously stir the tomatoes until they release their juice and disintegrate. Add about 3 cups of water and bring to a boil.
Turn heat to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the basil and salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaves and then puree in a food processor or with a stick blender.
Return the soup to low, and add more water for consistency if desired. Serves 8.