By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
It was plum season here in the Bay Area in June. These Californians don’t take this lightly. They are all in when growing their plums. Or should I say, when the plums flourish on their own? Plums are one of those crops that you can have enough of a good thing. Fortunately, friends and neighbors are generous about spreading the wealth. “Please come over and pick some plums.” “Could you use some plums, like a bushel?!” Or there’s the “dive bomb” method: bags of plums show up on your front porch, seemingly from nowhere.
Plums originated largely in Japan and China, and in Europe. In general, plums in the U.S. are from Asian descent, and are juicier and hardier, and consumed mostly as raw fruit. In Europe, they tend to be of European origin: these include prune, damson, and Victoria plums. Eastern Europeans drink Slivovitz, a brandy, which is derived from fermented plums. The Italian prune plum is used to make, you guessed it, prunes.
Plums have appeared throughout art history, music, and folklore. Most notable is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Let’s not forget the nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner who stuck his thumb in a pie to pull out a plum. There’s Eduardo Manet’s 1877 oil painting “La Prune” (The Plum) featuring a woman in a cafe hovering over a plum soaked in brandy. The Japanese artist Ogata Kōrin used plum blossoms as a subject on his mid-19th century screens titled “Red and White Plum Blossoms.”.
Plums have been hybridized with other fruits, some of them becoming quite popular. The most common combo is Japanese plums and apricots, called pluots or plumcots. They come in various colors and sizes. I personally think they taste like plums, but that’s me.
A more exciting hybrid is a sweet cherry and an Asian plum called cherry plums. They are a little larger than cherries and are quite sweet. They have a short growing season and can be hard to come by. Fortunately, we have a few of those trees growing in our “produce aisle.” This is our affectionate name for an old horse trail, now a walking path, which meanders through the neighborhood across the street from us. This one path has a plethora of different fruit and nut trees. The rule around here is that if the tree branch hangs over the trail, it’s free to pick. Last summer, my sister, Marcia and I picked so many cherry plums that we made a massive amount of jam.
One hot June afternoon, I was invited over to our friends Marilyn and Barry’s home, to pick plums from their old tree. The tree’s trunk was almost split apart but this baby kept right on growing plums, year after year. “Please take them. Take more!” See what I mean? Hobbyist fruit tree owners end up with more fruit than they need or can use, unlike commercial farmers.
Now that I had the plums in my kitchen, the decision of what to do with them was the question of the day. I will admit, plums are my least favorite stone fruit–raw that is. I prefer them in baked goods or savory dishes. They add such a luscious character to cakes, strudels, chutneys and jam. Raw, in my opinion, not so much. They are beautiful though. Often the color of the flesh is nowhere near what the skin shows outwardly.
After stewing up some plum barbecue sauce for grilled chicken, I went the dessert route. Today’s recipe is a very simple hazelnut kuchen (German for cake), often served with coffee. The beauty of this recipe is that you can interchange the nuts (toast them before using for added flavor!) or change the fruit to peaches, nectarines, apples, or pears depending on the season. I happen to love it with plums.
Your plum assignment is to share your own plum recipe with The Insider!
Fresh Plum Kuchen
Yield: 10 servings
12-15 ripe, firm plums, cut in half and pitted
3 oz. butter, room temperature
1 c. + 2 Tbsp. sugar
2 lg. eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 c. flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
2/3 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. toasted ground hazelnuts
cinnamon sugar for garnish
Preheat oven to 350°. Spray an 8-9” springform pan with pan release. Reserve.
Using an electric mixer, blend together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, making sure that the first one is fully incorporated.
Toss together the flour, powder, and salt. Blend the dry ingredients into the batter in thirds, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with the dry. Add the vanilla. Fold in the nuts by hand using a rubber spatula.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Arrange the plum halves, cut-side up, in concentric circles, beginning with the outer row. Sprinkle the plums liberally with cinnamon sugar.
Bake for about 40 minutes until the cake is set. When fully cooled, remove the cake from the pan. Serve at room temperature or warm with vanilla ice cream.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.