Pity the poor plum — overshadowed by both the flamboyant glamour of the black cherry and the seductive charms of the tender peach — with only the sorrowful expectation of becoming the wrinkled prune in its future. The plum, quiet, unassuming, yet personable, must be the most neglected fruit in the summer pantheon.
I say, however, that the plum has a subtle charm that, with a bit of teasing out, will serve to satisfy the most finicky gastronome. And they are remarkably diverse. With only two general categories widely available for eating in Ontario, the Japanese and the European plum, the fruit is available in a panorama of colours and shapes and sizes. The skins can be red, purple, blue-black, green, yellow or amber, while the flesh comes in hues such as yellow, green, pink and orange — a virtual rainbow.
And the plum tree, itself, is showy and remarkable. I recall a small tree that was both the bane of my father’s gardening life, and his pride and joy. I’m not sure what kind of plum tree it was, but, since the fruit itself was always hard and totally inedible, I’m certain that it must have been some sort of ornamental variety. It never grew more that about 15 feet high, and required constant attention. But on the “good” years, it would burst into the most extraordinary froth of pinky-burgundy flowers in the spring and the foliage remained a deep purpley blue colour for the entire summer.
Anyway, plums belong to the Prunus domestica genus of plant and are relatives of the peach, nectarine and almond. These are all considered “drupes”, fruits that have a hard stone pit surrounding their seeds. At our local markets you are most likely to find the best-selling Santa Rosa with reddish skin, the Early Golden, a freestone variety with yellow skin and major red varieties such as Burbank, Ozark Premier and Vanier, available in August and September. You might have to look harder to find the trendy Damson, a small blue plum with tart flesh and the Greengage, which is greenish-yellow in colour and only suitable for eating when very, very ripe.
All Ontario plums are considered good for eating out of hand. But for cooking purposes, the Italian prune plum is — well — the real thing. An oblong fruit with a dark reddish-blue blush and a powdery, purplish texture, this plum stands up to heat with distinction, emerging at the slightly tart heart of everything from chutneys to crumbles.
Italian prune plumes are still a major crop near Milan in the Lombardy region. And they are actually the only type of plum that is dried into prunes since, while all prunes are dried plums, not all plums, if dried, would turn into what we recognize as prunes. What makes a plain plum a good prune plum is, essentially, a very high sugar content. a factor that also makes the Italian prune plum the best choice for baking or jam. And that’s good news, because all other plums can then be freed up to be used in pies or tortes, cakes or crumbles, soups (yes!) or sauces or sorbets and even liqueurs. (I was introduced to plum liqueur by my Eastern European relatives. Called slivovitz, or the Czech slivovice, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.)
And I’m not the only one to believe in the romance of the plum. Here’s a poem celebrating the plum, in words as mundane, yet heartfelt, as the fruit itself.
I have eaten
that were in the icebox
you were probably saving
they were delicious
so sweet and so cold
by William Carlos Williams
So here’s my very favorite recipe for plum cake, called Pflaumenkuchen in Germany. It’s not really “cakey”, more like a coffee cake and meant to be eaten as a snack with a cup of coffee and a dollop of whipped cream if you’re feeling particularly expansive.
German Plum Cake or Pflaumenkuchen
from Mimi Sheraton’s, The German Cookbook
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/8 cup sugar
2 cups unsifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
3 pounds Italian plums, pitted and quartered
Powdered sugar for dusting
½ teaspoon cinnamon, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan.
3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and lemon juice and rind. Mix to combine. Then add flour, baking powder and salt. Batter will be quite stiff.
4. Using a spatula or rubber scraper, spread batter evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan. Pack plums closely together on top of the dough.
5. Bake 35 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
6. Remove from oven and dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon (if using).
This is not really terribly sweet and is good served with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.