After Christmas Perrin brought me a bag of plums from his sister’s tree. He called to tell me he had picked a handful to make a cake. I remember smiling down the phone at this guy who picks me plums and suggests cake making. He brought the plums back in a supermarket shopping bag, the plastic threatening to tear. Nearly three kilos of small cherry-like fruit with dark skins and flesh the colour of a ruby sunset. The ripe skins were beginning to burst. We got to work fast.
This french plum cake recipe comes from an old Annabel Langbein book, the font and photos harking back to the nineties. It has been years since we have made this cake, maybe not so long ago as the nineties but I had forgotten the exciting bite of a plum cake – the soft buttery crumb with tart lush plums, their juices bursting, running red through the pale batter with the pierce of a fork.
Normally the plums sink as the cake cooks and the batter envelops the dimple of the cut half, but our plums were too small, light enough to gently nestle into the top of the cake. It was a polka dot cake and, when you think about, there is a happy simplicity to polka dots whether on a dress, around the lip of a bowl or spotted across the surface of a cake.
A few years ago, for a creative writing course, I wrote a story about making plum and apricot cakes. The story, the way it read, was largely fiction but the memories it conjured for me were true. My mother, sister and I picked the fruit from our elderly, dying neighbour’s tree. I wrote of standing on vinyl covered chairs at the kitchen bench with tea towels tied around our necks pulling the stones from the halved fruit with our fingers. The fruit in the story was over-ripe too, nearly stewing in their ripeness, I wrote.
It was summer time in the story and ripening stone fruit – the scent, soft fruit in hand, juices seeping from torn skin – then and now, create a sense of urgency; these need to be used, no waste. There were associations made between the fragility of a life of a plum and that of a person. Perhaps a more straightforward theme of my story was the simple pleasures cake baking can bring to both the cook and the recipient. These feelings are only heightened when the plums have been hand-picked off a neighbour’s or a sister’s tree.
French Plum Cake
This recipe, from Annabel Langbein‘s book More Taste than Time, makes two cakes; one to keep, one to give away.
6 to 8 fresh plums or other stone fruit
3 tablespoons sugar
300 grams butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
finely grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 cup milk
3 1/2 cups high grade flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Slice plums into a bowl and sprinkle with the 3 tablespoons of sugar. (If plums are small like ours slice in half, but quarter if using bigger plums.) Toss plums and leave to sit while preparing the rest of the cake.
Cream together the butter and the sugar. Add eggs, lemon rind, vanilla essence then stir in the milk, flour and baking powder. Divide batter between two tins and arrange plums on top.
Cook for 60-65 minutes – the fruit will sink into the cake as it cooks.
Serve warm with yoghurt or whipped cream. Best eaten the day of making – the second cake can be frozen.