I love a recipe with a little wiggle room, one that invites you to use blueberries or apples, peaches or plums, or a combination of any. Such is the directive in the original version of the famous Plum Torte recipe. First published in the New York Times in 1983, Marian Burros’s recipe for Plum Torte became one of the most popular recipes to grace the pages of the Times. The truth is, the recipe was lounging in a paperback cookbook on a shelf above my mother’s kitchen desk for years before I read it in the paper.
Marian Fox Burros and Lois Levine co-authored The Elegant But Easy Cookbook in 1960. A compendium of recipes geared towards entertaining, the premise of the book was that a host could be a guest at their own party. Burros and Levine clasped readers firmly by the oven mitt as they made their way through hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, main courses, breads, vegetables, starches, salads, and sweets. The painstaking notes in each chapter coaxed party throwers to prepare menu items in advance. No longer tethered to the kitchen, hostesses with the most-ess casually defrosted, reheated, and waited for the doorbell to ring. The recipe for the Plum Torte appears on page 154 in the chapter dedicated to sweets. It is quite similar to any number of ‘blitz’ type tortes, kuchen, or cakes prepared by generations of women; women who were generally in a hurry to get a meal on the table.
My copy of the Burros/Levine treatise on entertaining is wedged between books by Jennie Grossinger and Joan Nathan, on a shelf dedicated to Jewish Holiday cuisine. I like to think of that portion of the bookcase as the ‘Hadassah Ladies;’ women well versed in tzimmes and rugelach, mandelbrot and kneidlach. The paperback book once belonged to my mother who handed it to me when we were in a hurry, packing up a box of kitchen essentials for the move to my first New York City apartment. When I asked my mother if she wanted to keep the well-worn book she replied , “I have two more copies; one belonged to Mama Minnie and one was Aunt Lily’s.” The book retailed for two dollars and ninety-five cents but felt as valuable as a priceless family heirloom. Over the years, I extracted a number of recipes from the book, gravitating towards quick hors d’oeuvres and many of the simple icebox pies.
Today, my copy of the paperback book is weary, cracked along the spine, the front and back covers a touch brittle around the edges. The book opens to page 154 with minimal intervention. The recipe for the original Plum Torte is actually titled Fruit Torte and is identified with #3. (This has nothing to do with social media; instead it indicates that the cake can be prepared up to 3 days prior to serving.) According to an article written by Marian, she credits Lois with bringing the recipe to their original book, Elegant but Easy, in 1960. The edition that sits on my bookshelf was updated in 1967, and stands at the ready should I decide to host a mid-week luncheon or a casual midnight buffet. To date, I’ve hosted neither but I have often turned to page 154 when plums roll through town.
There is something comforting and grandmotherly about the Plum Torte. When I assemble the ingredients, the kitchen suddenly feels crowded with grandmothers in heavy stockings and aunts with monogrammed handkerchiefs peeking out of pockets. They are not shy in offering their opinions on how they make their Plum Torte and why their version is a little bit better. The cake portion of the dessert is dare I say, somewhat dowdy. What gives it spunk are the plums; deeply hued, they dress up the torte like one of those beloved grandmothers or aunts wearing a little too much lipstick.
With apologies to Marion and Lois, I prefer to bake their cake not in a springform, but in a cast iron skillet measuring 8” in diameter. The batter fills the pan generously, resulting in a thicker slice. Call me a nonconformist, but fanning slices of sweet/tart plums over the batter creates a vibrant circle of fruit that bakes up as a beautiful mosaic of fall color. Truly a harbinger of autumn, the Burros/Levine recipe is one of those desserts with a long history and a dedicated following. For so many of us who grew up enjoying this cake, it wouldn’t be September without it.
When I think about blueberry pie in summer, I think about my father loading us into the forest green station wagon at the ungodly hour of 6 am, with the sole purpose of getting on the road before rush hour traffic. No matter how you sliced it, Maine was eight hours away and for the passenger wedged between a Coleman cooler and the ‘way back’ seat, it was interminable. We seemed to manage without water bottles or juice boxes, relying instead on cold water dispensed into Dixie cups from an unwieldy thermos. Our navigation system consisted of a series of AAA paper maps, folded neatly and secured in the glove compartment. My father was well acquainted with every thruway and turnpike, beltway and parkway, only asking my mother to pull out the map when an unforeseen traffic incident snarled his plans. He rolled the window down periodically to feed the tollbooths with coins easily accessible from the unused ashtray. The radio stations vacillated between up to the minute traffic reports and easy listening. Occasionally, my mother would lean over and change the dial to a contemporary station. We stopped infrequently along the way; once for a picnic lunch, once to fill the thirsty car with gas, and mid-afternoon for gravity defying scoops of ice cream perched high atop sugar cones. For more years than I can count, the sole purpose of our trip was Visiting Day/Parents Weekend at the summer camp my brothers attended.
My sleep-away camp experience was less successful; an eight-week stint in the Maine woods left me more homesick than emancipated, with no hankering to return. In between lake swims, non-competitive sports, and skit night, we hiked along trails cushioned with pine needles, edged in sun-dappled ferns. One of our counselors was a botanist, keen on identifying plant-life while steering us clear of poisonous shrubs and ivy. Guiding us towards meandering clusters of wild Maine blueberries, we ate them by the handfuls, dotting our fingers and our white middy blouses in violet. We were foragers way ahead of our time. The berries were both vibrantly sweet and tart, much like the candy options available from the camp’s daily canteen. Sprawled across my bunk popping Sweet-Tarts into my mouth, I wrote letters to my parents imploring them to let me come home. In return, my mother’s letters were breezy and newsy, reminding me how much I would miss camp when it ended. My father simply wrote in his signature scrawl; “I miss you but remember, life is a series of adjustments.” He was right.
To this day, a Maine license plate still causes a double-edged tinge of homesickness and carsickness. After years of little adjustments however, a trip to ‘Vacationland’ is a much welcome respite. It also boasts quart containers of wild blueberries begging to be consumed.
A really fine slice of blueberry pie made with wild Maine berries conjures summer camp in the very first forkful. It is a totally different pie experience than the plump cultivated, (“highbush”) berries suspended in sugar and Minute tapioca that most of us grew up with. When faced with an empty pie shell and 6 cups of blues, I am always reminded that blueberry pie in particular is tricky business, a balancing act of sweetness and thickener, capable of standing up to a fork, yet saucy enough to spill across a dessert plate. The collision of warm berries against a pool of melting vanilla ice cream, all tangled up between a flaky pie crust epitomizes summer, but it’s challenging to execute successfully. Just back from a road trip to ‘Vacationland,’ I’ve opted for the least bit of intervention between wild Maine blueberries and my pie plate. Combining them with a shy amount of sweetener and just enough thickener to contain the juices, the berries are topped with rich biscuit dough and baked until bubbly. Had my father been joining me, he would have insisted on dousing the cobbled biscuits and fruit with pouring cream. Like father, like daughter.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm