SEPTEMBER AND THE PLUM TORTE
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.
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