9.04.2009

all of it

Sometimes, I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. No, scratch that. It’s that I have too many ideas, I think.

For a while – the entire first decade of my life, in fact – these many ideas at least had the courtesy to take turns. I was a serial monogamist, wedded heart and soul to one career at a time. In preschool, it was carpentry. My grandparents owned a lumber yard, so my early exposure to sky-high stacks of two-by-fours and plywood may have had something to do with it. I carried around a block of wood and a square of sandpaper in the pocket of the carpenter’s apron that my grandfather had given me. Wherever I went, I sanded. I had big plans: One day, I would build a sprawling house where I would live together with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.



We would have our own separate wings, and bunk beds, and – get this – every morning a train would loop around to each of our bedrooms and carry us down to Grand Central Station (the kitchen, of course) for breakfast. The carpentry years are well-documented in a caricature that still hangs on the wall of my childhood bedroom. In it, a five-year-old me sits happily sawing away at a sawhorse (because what else does one do at a sawhorse?), with several nails pressed between my lips. That last part always struck me as kind of dangerous, but, well, a carpenter’s got to do what a carpenter’s got to do. On Career Day, I would tie on my carpenter’s apron, tuck a T-square under my arm, and silently pity the mini-lawyers and businessmen who, as far as I could tell, had only suits, slicked back hair, and squeaky shoes to look forward to in adulthood. Not me. I was going to be a carpenter, and that drawing proved it. Its black plastic frame sealed my fate.

Until the second grade, that is, when I discovered a higher calling: veterinary medicine. I had a very specialized practice in mind. I would treat dogs and, in a nod to Roy and Innis, the Polish Arabians who lived in the stables across the street, horses. This veterinary phase lasted until the summer before the fourth grade, when I learned from a camp counselor of mine (he had been a psychology major in college) that psychology is what you study if you want to learn about the way people think and feel. Who wouldn’t want to know about that? Psychology, I decided, would be my life’s work.

But then came the fifth grade, and with it, the unsettling realization that there sure is a lot out there to be when one grows up. I read a book by Jane Goodall, and decided that I, too, wanted to study chimpanzees in their natural habitat. And my life would not be complete without a simultaneous career in musical theatre. (Painful and harmonically redundant as it sounds, I was going through an Andrew Lloyd Webber phase at the time.) Fifth grade was also the year of the poetry circle in Mrs. Barron’s English class and, to top it all off, the year that I discovered that holiest of tomes, The Thesaurus. It dawned on me like the blazing, incandescent sun: I would be a poet. One that would force her readers to dodge flowery adjectives like rapid-fire bullets, apparently. Oh, and a psychologist. Yes, still. I had far from abandoned that path. Laugh if you wish, dear readers, but I was dead serious. About all of it.

In the thick of this primate-pondering, show-tune belting, thesaurus-thumbing, and head-shrinking, I met a girl named Rachel. Rachel’s father was a produce man. To this day, I’m not certain exactly what that meant, whether he delivered the produce to the markets or arranged it on the shelves, or both. What I do know is that Rachel had a special claim to fame. At lunchtime, on a fairly regular basis, she would dump her brown bag lunch onto the table, and smugly announce: “I have never eaten a plum that is yellow on the inside.” I watched closely - we all did - and this daughter of a produce man spoke the truth. Every plum that ever crossed her lips was clearly blushing, inside and out. Of course, some plum varieties, at their ripest and most flavorful, are actually supposed to be creamy yellow beneath the skin. But we didn’t know that, and we didn’t care. To us, Rachel’s rosy plums were the plums to beat.

My curiosity about Rachel’s father’s career never blossomed into a full-fledged desire to work in produce. I did, however, entertain fantasies of the fruit that could be mine if ever I were to follow that path. The perfect plum often eludes me. It’s hit or miss. But if I were a produce professional, I would have it all down to a science. Or maybe a feeling, a stone fruit intuition, that would guide my hand to the sweetest, juiciest plums of all.

As it stands, I’m a mere layperson in the produce aisles. I never acquired any such plum-picking powers. Instead, I made the acquaintance of a certain plum-like fruit that is consistently more hit than miss: the pluot (rhymes with “flu shot”). The pluot, not to be confused with the plumcot or the aprium, is about three-fifths plum and two-fifths apricot in parentage. Deep purple, reliably sweet, with a tart, grapey finish, the pluot has officially joined the ranks of my favorite late-summer stone fruits. As its name reflects, this little fruit refuses to be just one thing. And you know, I think I might follow suit. There’s no better life than the cross-pollinated life. That may be my new mantra.

I enjoy pluots right out of hand, yes, but most of all, I like baking them into all manner of crusty, custardy, crumbly things, like galettes, clafoutis and, most recently, this simple cake.

plum cake 2

I first tried this recipe with raspberries, and then with blackberries, but my favorite topping by far is the pluot. I think it has something to do with the way they caramelize around the edges. A slice of this cake has it all: a moist crumb, a whisper of lemon, and the sweet nuttiness that fruit takes on when it melts and curls up into itself under an open flame. It’s good company on late nights spent dreaming, scheming, and figuring things out. And even better for taking a break from all that, and simply digging in.

Pluot Cake
Adapted from Everybody Likes Sandwiches, who adapted it from Not Derby Pie

1 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
¾ c. sugar
2 eggs
½ c. canola oil
1 t. vanilla
4-5 pluots, or other small stone fruit (or 1-2 c. berries)
1 T. raw sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter (or oil) and flour an 8-9 inch springform pan, and slice the fruit into thin crescents. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Add the sugar, eggs, vanilla, and oil, and stir until the mixture forms a thick batter. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. As I said, it will be thick, so you may need to use a spatula to spread the batter evenly. Arrange the fruit slices on top in any pattern that pleases you. I like to go with overlapping rows on this cake. Sprinkle the top with the raw sugar, and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Do not overbake. I beg you. Just a couple of extra minutes rob this cake of its moisture, so check early and often. I have found that this cake is at its best on the second day. I like to bake it, let it cool, cover with plastic wrap, and keep it overnight on the counter. With this treatment, the moist crumb turns almost creamy. If you feel the need, you can slip the day-old cake under the broiler for a minute, or use a kitchen torch to re-crisp the top.

21 comments:

Julie said...

Well. That looks quite fab. I just devoured almost a bowlful of pluots - but mine were yellow and red with the skin of a zebra tomato -no purple in sight. Perhaps pluots have as wide a range as their cousins? at any rate, I'll have to buy more to make this cake!

Have I told you how glad I am to have you back? :)

EEJ said...

I think we *all* had an Andrew Lloyd Webber phase. I know I did (for, like, ten years - shudder). Anyway, I love the look of this cake and I think I'll have to bake it for my sister's wedding shower next weekend. Thanks for the recipe!

Kerstin said...

What a yummy pluot cake, I just started finding them at the grocery store this year.

Rogue Unicorn said...

Oh God, the Andrew Lloyd Webber phase. I am ashamed to admit that for a long time I thought of T.S. Elliot as the poet who wrote the lyrics to Cats.
That cake looks lovely. Glad to have you back.

Anonymous said...

Um, I still have this problem - when will I have time for my stuntwoman training while I'm working on the PhD? Sometimes I want to invent parallel lifetimes for myself so I can fit it all in. Thanks for the cake-

xx
Megan

culinaryexperiments said...

Mmm, I work at a grocery store and I love picking out a pluot and eating it at my register. They're easy to sell to the kids, too, because they're also called "dinosaur eggs." Who knows why, but it's entertaining.

I've only ever eaten them there, but this recipe looks amazing! I'll actually have to bring some home next time.

+Christina+

tara said...

Oh my dear, you are a poet. And a simultaneous baker. That cake is gorgeous.

Char said...

oh delish. I love to just eat them alone too.

I shifted from nurse, to author, to dress designer, to...I don't know what all I wanted to do. Somehow I ended up being a banker - I'm not really sure how.

Lucy Meskill... said...

I too went through the veterinary phase and have an immense love for horses. Whenever I am near them they make me weep with joy, I could have become really famous as the "Weeping Veterinarian". I eventually wound up making my living as a cook, a baker and a custom picture frame maker! This plum cake is beautiful! You are such a treasure, I love your beautiful literary style!

Best always,

Lucy @nogluteneaten

mom said...

a cook, a baker, a writer, a teacher, a singer, a director, a researcher, a linguist, a runner, a PhD candidate, a conference planner, a wife, a daugher, a sister, a grandchild, an aunt, a friend .... the world is a better place because you are more than one thing. You are an extraordinary woman --- and I take the liberty of being so very proud of you!! I love everything that you are and are yet to be.

TasteStopping said...

Mmmm. What a wonderful post. And then, this last comment (by what appears to be your mother) has me tearing up. Thanks for bringing me into your world (and convincing me to try a pluot).

Best,
Casey
Editor
www.tastestopping.wordpress.com

Dolce said...

I love pluots but I have never baked with pluots. I might as well start before autumn gets in!

Andrea [bella eats] said...

Loved this post. I was the opposite of you - while I did switch from veterinary medicine to architecture as a career choice in the sixth grade, from then on it was all architecture. And now? 2 degrees and many many years later, I'm not so sure anymore...

This cake looks just lovely. I will definitely be looking for pluots at the market this weekend...

jacqui | happyjackeats said...

what a wonderful story. and i like that mantra. a lot.

Phoebe said...

That cake looks so delicious! I always wondered what pluot was. I might try making this for the brithday of a good friend who is coming to visit next week... I change my mind about what to bake even more often than I change my mind about what to do when I grow up, though!

Thanks for sharing your recipe! Check out my food blog if you get a chance.

www.sugarspicebutter.blogspot.com

Nurit "1 family. friendly. food." said...

The cake looks heavenly. Someone tweeted it to me. I've put it on my to-do list.

aedrbf said...

I never knew you wanted to be so many things when you grew up....but I bet there are many more hidden inside yet to be discovered. I am sure you will find a way of making all your dreams come true. And thanks for the free advertising!!!!!!!!!
Aunt Amy

Amy said...

so, I made a similar rustic plum tart (from PURE DESSERTS) -- with the plums -- and/or pluots -- pressed into kind of a sweet crust concoction (only one egg) rather than a cake. my plums could have been juicier and made more syrup, but still tres delish.
heart,
A

Jess said...

Julie - I made this cake again a few days ago, and this time I used pluots that looked like the ones you described. I think they were even better than the darker-skinned variety! And yes, I do believe you have told me, but it sure is nice hearing it again. Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

EEJ - I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one. Enjoy the cake!

Kerstin - Enjoy those pluots!

Rogue Unicorn - I always appreciate your comments, but this time, you had me laughing out loud. Thanks for that.

Megan - Actually, stuntwoman training may be the perfect hobby to pursue alongside graduate school. Leaping from flaming buildings and exploding vehicles might feel far less dangerous than braving the halls of academia!

Christina - Thanks for the charming window into your workday. I love the image of you and your pluot at the register. I hope you'll enjoy the cake.

Tara - You are so sweet. Thank you.

Char - It's funny sometimes, thinking about the paths we have taken. Your comment reminded me of a game I used to play with myself when I was a little kid: When I was falling asleep in bed, my mind would wander. Sometimes, I would pause on a given thought, and trace back my thinking - step by step - to figure out how my mind arrived at that thought. I still do it sometimes when I'm having trouble sleeping.

Lucy - Or should I say, "Weeping Veterinarian?" It sounds like you've figured out a way to be all kinds of wonderful things, all at the same time. Thanks for the inspiration, and for your very kind words.

Mom - Oh, Mom. What can I say? Thank you. I love you.

Casey - Thanks so much for being here, and for your very sweet note. Yep, that's my mom up there. She makes me teary, too.

Dolce - I say, go for it!

Andrea - Funny how that happens. We've never met, but I have a feeling that everything you do, you do quite well. Which, I'd imagine, doesn't make figuring out what to do next any easier.

Jacqui - Thank you. It's one to live by, I find.

Phoebe - I think that this cake would look lovely with a few birthday candles on top. Thanks for your note, and congratulations on your new blog.

Nurit - I hope you'll find that making this cake is a very happy "to do."

Aunt Amy - Sometimes I think about that - how many undiscovered loves and dreams we all have inside of us, no matter how old we are. You're very welcome for the advertising. I hadn't thought of it that way!

Amy - I'd love to take a look at that recipe. It sounds wonderful. xo.

Nana said...

I made this cake today. The recipe says the batter would be thick. My batter was not. I did think 2eggs and 1/2 cup of oil was a lot of liquid for 1 Cup of flour. The pluots didn't stay on top but sank into the batter. Did I do something wrong ? In spite of this, the cake tasted very nice.

Jess said...

Hi, Nana. I wish I could tell you what was behind the thin batter and sinking fruit! Those measurements are correct... In any case, I'm glad that the end result was tasty. I'm sorry I can't be of more help!