Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake

When I was little I wanted the birthday cake with the snow-white frosting from the bakery, stiff ruffled piped edges (with a little leaf here or there), and lots of roses (which I got first dibs on, it being my birthday).  As my mother explained it, that frosting was little more than sugar and Crisco mixed together.  (Yes, friends, I was one of those precocious foodie kids).  Post-cake, as I looked at the blue cans of Crisco in our pantry, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this.  So if I just mix sugar into that cylindrical tub, I’ll have frosting?   The thought of it was confusing and more than a bit offputting so I never ventured further.  Not offputting enough that I stopped eating frosting-heavy pieces of cake though.

Nor was it offputting to anyone in our family.  There was always an excuse for cake or its ilk.  Since birthdays weren’t frequent enough, in 1990 my father ordered a cake to celebrate Germany’s reunification.  The excuse was that our dachshund, as a German breed (and the only one in the house with putative German ancestry), would want to celebrate the occasion.  It’s ridiculous, I’ll admit, and we knew it at the time, but we got to eat a (black, red and yellow) cake.

Perhaps I’ve grown more refined with age (or so I like to think), and while birthday cakes are still a must, it’s no longer all about the icing.  I still love the stuff, but I don’t miss that slightly ill feeling of overindulgence afterwards.

Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake (3 of 7)

To forgo frosting, however, requires a cake that can stand on its own.  Perhaps one loaded with juicy plums that bake down intense and syrupy, melting into a rich walnut-inflected crumb?

Yes, that will do.

Especially when it’s from the cookbook of one of Boston’s most acclaimed chefs, Jody Adams of Rialto and more recently Trade, In the Hands of a Chef.   With her husband Ken Rivard, they also are behind one of my favorite blogs, The Garum Factory.  They’re all about bold ingredients (the namesake says it all) and elegant flavor combinations.

Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake (1 of 7)

I’ve had this cookbook for a while, and have been waiting for plum season just to make this cake (and more jam and more galettes).  When, a few days before my birthday, I got sugar plums at the farmer’s market–petite, purple, which that characteristic waxy bloom–their future was clear.  While smaller than Italian prune plums, they come into season a bit earlier, and substituted wonderfully.

This post incubated for a while, and plum season is by now finishing up.  The good news is that Italian prune plums, which the recipe calls for, are a later season variety.  Furthermore this plum cake couldn’t be easier to make–I whipped it up on a weeknight with no more advance prep than buying the plums.  It’s moist from the fruit and rich from the nuts, and is therefore plenty indulgent, frosting or no.

Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake (2 of 7)

And it has a little brandy–and we all know that alcohol always helps a bit on birthdays.

Yes, my birthday was exactly a month ago but I’ve only finally gotten around to posting now.  We’ve had a server switch, followed by a switch to a Mac after my PC started malfunctioning.  Here’s hoping that we’ll be on a more regular posting schedule soon.  Enough housekeeping and on to the recipe!

If you want more Garum Factory cakes (you do!) check out this spring’s Rhubarb Rose Upside-Down Cake (which inspired my ice cream post) and today’s post, Coconut Yogurt Cake with Roasted Peaches.


Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake (6 of 7)

Sugar Plum Walnut Butter Cake

Author: adapted very slightly from In the Hands of a Chef by Jody Adams and Ken Rivard
  • 9T unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1c + 1T unbleached AP flour
  • 1 1/4 c sugar (divided)
  • 16 sugar plums (or 12 prune plums) cut in half
  • 1/4c brandy
  • 1t lemon zest
  • 1/2t vanilla extract
  • 1t baking powder
  • 1/2t kosher salt
  • 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
  • 1/4c ground toasted walnuts (I measured 1/3c walnuts)
  1. To toast the walnuts, toss in a dry skillet over medium for a few minutes until toasted. (Watch carefully, they can burn easily). Immediately remove to a plate and grind in the food processor when cool.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan with 1T of the butter and dust with 1T of the flour.
  3. Toss the plums with 2T of sugar and the brandy, set aside.
  4. Stir together the remaining cup of flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
  5. In a large bowl, cream the remaining 8T of butter into the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Sift in the flour mixture.
  6. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs just until they start to foam. (Do not overbeat). Fold the eggs and the ground walnuts into the flour-butter mixture and mix well.
  7. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Arrange the plum halves, cut side down, in concentric circles over the batter. (The batter will rise up around the plums as is bakes, so don’t kill yourself trying to make sure it looks perfect). Pour any remaining brandy syrup on top. Sprinkle with the remaining 2T of sugar. Slide onto a cookie sheet to catch any spills.
  8. Bake one hour, or until the plum cake is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. (Be careful not to test through a plum!). Cool 10 minutes before removing the sides of the springform pan and serving.

Italian Prune Plum Galette

Puff pastry has to be one of the miracles of butter. The dough goes from razor thin to blistered, flaky, and, well, gloriously puffed in the oven, thanks to the pockets of butter that release steam to create that crisp, shattering architecture.  And baking with puff pastry lets me pretend, at least a little, that I’m an expert patissiere.

But without too much work, please. True puff pastry does take some effort, more technique and even more waiting time.  Luckily, the shortcut ”quick puff” method–which is very easy and very fast–yields excellent results.  (Maybe it’s cheating to use a food processor, but I won’t tell if you won’t).  Many variations of quick puff are out there; I use Nick Malgieri’s version (the recipe is here) and always make extra for the freezer.  (I’ve been going on and on and on about puff pastry for a while now, and there will only be more:  it’s our current chapter in the Modern Baker Challenge).  You can find raw puff pastry in the freezer case, and while some brands are very good, quality can very.  That’s the best part about making your own puff though (besides being much more economical):  you know your pastry is made with pure butter, rather than trans-fat or its only slightly less undesirable cousins.

Here’s a lovely fall dessert, made with Italian prune plums (yes, you can do more than make a knockout jam with these–and I’m doing my best to take advantage of their brief season).  Prune plums are oblong rather than round, and almost a blackish purple.  While they don’t taste much different than other plums raw, somehow through the alchemy of heat they become jam like and rich with spicy aromatics–perfect for cooling nights. Toss them with a bit of lemon zest and sugar and arrange prettily across your pastry dough, and fold the edges over.  You needn’t be too fussy though. Because it’s a galette, shaggy edges are to be desired rather than shunned, as they lend a rustic look to your final masterpiece.

Italian Prune Plum Galette
  • 3/4 to 1 pound (350-450g) Italian Prune Plums
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • zest of one lemon
  • 10 ounces puff pastry (about 285 grams), defrosted overnight in the fridge
Roll out puff pastry dough into a rectangle roughly 14 by 12 inches (35 x 30cm, or about the size of a cookie sheet). Gently lift onto a cookie sheet, and refrigerate while preparing the fruit. (Puff pastry, like pie dough, needs to be kept cold).

Slice the plums in half lengthwise, then slice each piece in half again. Toss gently (using your hands) with the lemon zest and the sugar in a bowl.

Remove the pastry dough from the refrigerator, and arrange the fruit slices down the center, leaving about two inches margin at each edge. Fold the edges towards the center, partially covering some of the fruit.

There will be some “syrup” left in your bowl, scrape out as much as you can and drizzle over the plums.

Bake for about 35-40 minutes at 425F (220C). (Reduce to 400F/200C if the pastry browns too quickly).

Some notes and tips:  Firm fruit retains its shape best (and thus emerges more beautifully from the oven).  As this is more of a method than a recipe,  if you don’t have Italian Prune Plums, use any other plums you have available. Or, in fact, any fruit you prefer!

A version of this post was originally published on Honest Cooking.

Italian Prune Plum Jam

How is it that I found myself buying 4 pounds of plums at from a vendor at the farmer’s market this weekend?  (I don’t really even much like plums).  But the knowledge that I’m getting my hands on something fleeting and just a bit unusual, combined with a touch of nostalgia, results in me buying pound after pound…

Now you’re trying to figure out how to politely inform me that plums are anything but exotic.  What if I tell you they are Italian Prune Plums?  (“OK,” you’re thinking:  “Italian sounds good, prune…not so much”). 

Yes, these plums, further known as quetsche in French are used to make prunes, but don’t hold that against them.  They are smaller and more oblong than the rounder, squatter plums you typically see, with a black-purple matte skin.  While, when raw, they don’t taste much different from regular plums (as I was disappointed to find) they bake up into something amazing — you’ll swear you added spices to the mix–cloves?  anise?  A little heat makes a world of difference.

And what’s the nostalgia part, then?  These plums are very popular for all sorts of uses in Eastern Europe, where I have spent a lot of time — used whole to plump up dumplings, cooked down into a plum butter used in just about everything (povidel, powidla, povidla, or lekvar, depending on what side of what border you happen to be on) and — you knew it was coming — to make plum brandy (ever heard of slivovitz or slivovice, the name deriving from sliva, the Slavic languages’ word for this type of plum?)

I have a few little digressions in respect of slivovitz:

(1)  Our grandfather claimed he had a healthy dose of it right after being born – esentially a liquid slap on the back from the midwife.

(2) Karen reminds me of when I brought a sample back from Croatia and three generations of us sat around our Grandma’s table to each taste a glass.  As Karen remembers it, we all blanched at the slightest drop on our tongue, except for our Grandma who threw it back and bustled back to her duties in the kitchen declaring, “I’ve had stronger.”

(3) The teachers I worked with in the Czech Republic offered me a small jigger to cure a stubborn flu (why yes, they kept it in the teacher’s lounge!)   I wonder if it was a home brew like Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s here!

Alcohol-soaked anecdotes aside, let me tell you about the jam, which is crazy good, and which will be made again next week if there are any more prune plums to be had!  It’s perfect on toasts, sweet but bright tasting, a brilliant magenta-fuschia with little bits of cooked down peel suspended throughout.  How can something from a pedestrian plum taste so good?

Italian Prune Plum Jam (4 of 4)I used the basic, no-pectin-added, plum recipe at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  I made one change:  because all the other recipes I looked at (which were practically the same anyway) required a 10 minute hot water bath, I went ahead and boiled the full 10 minutes in the canner (rather than the 5 minutes specified here).  Probably overkill, especially as this source is incredibly conservative.

It takes a while to pit and chop all those plums.  It also takes a while to cook the fruit into jam–and since I can at night when my boys are in bed, I was very aware of the tick-tocking of the clock.  But I had the windows open, with the crisp evening air at my side as I stirred and stirred and stirred, and it was somehow contemplative.   (I paused about every 10 minutes to snap a picture of the transformation, which I’ve included after the recipe).

My impatience did eventually rear its ugly head — my jars bubbled over a bit in the canner because I failed to let them rest for 5 minutes in the pot after procesing.  It’s important not to take the jars out too early because the jam is boiling inside the jars–if you remove them before they have a chance to come down from the boil, the literally bubble over.  After much anxious internet searching, it appears that as long as your seal isn’t compromised (which is a risk you run when it does bubble over) it’s fine.  (See what Marisa and the Minnesota extension site have to say).  Such are the perils of late-night canning!

Italian Prune Plum Jam (adapted from here)

  • 2 quarts chopped Italian prune plums (about 4 pounds)–I halved them, and chopped each half into another 8 pieces by halving again and quartering.
  • 6 cups sugar
  • 1½ cup water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice

Yield: About 8 half-pint jars (I got 6 and change–this always happens to me).

Note 1:  you can read up on canning technique here at Principles of Home
.  If you’ve never done it before, please do, as each step is important.  Note 2: since I was processing for 10 minutes, I did not sterilize the
canning jars
 as required in the original recipe).

Put a few saucers in the freezer.  Combine all ingredients; bring slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Then, stirring constantly (or almost constantly), cook rapidly to, or almost to, the jellying point (which is 8°F above the boiling point of water, or 220°F at sea level).

I found it was helpful to use a candy thermometer but it’s not required, as there are two other tests not requiring the thermometer.  Use your frozen saucers to test by dropping a teaspoon on your frozen plate, putting into the fridge for 1 minute, and pushing with your finger.  If it wrinkles you are done.  (You probably should turn off your burner while doing this so you don’t risk overcooking your jam).  The other test is to check for “sheeting”–if the jam “sheets” off the spoon (rather than in fast droplets) you’re good to go.  Check out the details on these techniques here:   Testing Jelly Without Added Pectin.

Pour hot jam into hot, sterile jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace and removing air bubbles.  (This will also help avoid bubbling over). Wipe rims of
jars with a dampened clean paper towel; adjust two-piece metal canning lids to fingertip tight, and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes.  Allow to rest 5 minutes after turning on the burner (learn from my mistakes!) and remove.  Allow to cool and check after 12-24 hours to ensure a good seal, and remove rings.

Some other prune plum ideas here:





Finished Jam (10:00)