9.16.2012

We make them so

I have something special for you today.


Two somethings special, actually.


This gorgeous creature is Luisa Weiss's Pflaumenkuchen.  Next to it is her book.


We've got lots to discuss on this early Sunday morning, friends.  So pull up a chair and maybe a pillow - pajamas welcome - and help yourselves to a slice.  It's the perfect breakfast sweet, really, light on the sugar, heavy on the fruit, with a yeasted crust that's more pastry than cake and reminds me of cinnamon rolls.  


Pflaumen means "plums" in German and Kuchen means "cake," and this Pflaumenkuchen features the Italian prune plums you see here.  You've probably spotted them at the markets lately with their cloudy purple skins.  September is their time.  They're more oval than round, egg-like, only smaller; when you hold one in the palm of your hand and close your fingers around it, it all but disappears.  Prune plums are nothing to write home about straight from the tree, but put them in the oven and what comes out is worth volumes.  (Don't worry, I'll settle for a few sentences today.)  I'd never thought of plum as a particularly strong or heady flavor - it's no ripe peach or concord grape - until I'd tasted a prune plum, cooked.  I was living in Israel and my Swiss roommate made a cake not unlike this one, and I remember thinking for the first time, I know what a plum tastes like, now.  Since then, even when I haven't eaten one in a long time, I can imagine the flavor on my tongue, the same way I do no-brainers like green apples and bananas.

A cooked prune plum is sweet-tart, floral, rich, and grapey.  It holds its form beautifully in the oven and emerges plump with juices.  I'm sure I've described cakes with fruit baked in as "jammy," but today I say it with extra feeling.  The way the sugar turns to syrup and the plums melt and pucker, the way their insides dissolve as you chew, "jammy" really is the word.  Pflaumenkuchen is one of those cakes with hardly any ingredients that tastes like a million bucks (I have a thing for those; in fact, you might say they're my specialty) and in my next life, I want to come back as a September baby so that I can have this as my birthday cake each year.   


I'd like to say a few words now about Luisa's book, My Berlin Kitchen, because it's so good, and in some very specific ways.  Luisa writes a lovely story, yes, and with courage.  She has you rooting for love, thrilling in the power each of us has to create the life we want to live, and believing in happily-ever-afters that come true because we make them so.  She writes about finding her way home in the deepest sense.  I love all of that.  But what gripped me most of all is her food writing.  It's some of the best I've seen.  You won't find any dew-spangled, glistening-in-the-morning-sun "foodie" talk here.  Luisa's too smart for that, and too sincere.  Her writing about food is darker, more complicated and more precise.  Because the people and places that nourish us are not always who and what we expect them to be.  It's personal.  Luisa's been writing in this vein on her blog for years.  In her book, she does it better and more.  That took me by surprise and blew me away.   


My Berlin Kitchen comes out tomorrow.  You did it, Luisa.  Happy book day.

::

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins tonight.  Apples are the fruit traditionally associated with this holiday, but I can't help myself; Luisa's Pflaumenkuchen will be on my table tonight.  If you're looking to go the apple route, here are a few favorite desserts from the archives:

Dutch Appeltaart with Honey Ice Cream
Tarte aux pommes
Teddie's Apple Cake (dairy-free)
Jess's Teddie's (dairy-free)

Starting tonight, I'll be unplugging for a couple of days to spend time with family and friends.  I'll be available today to answer any recipe questions, but then please excuse my silence in the comments. Will be thinking of you in the kitchen, as always, and sending you my best.  This year feels quite happy and new on our end.  Wishing the same for you.  xo.

::

p.s. Safari users:  I understand that you've been unable to post comments for some time now.  Thanks for bringing this problem to my attention.  I'm working on a fix, and apologize for the inconvenience.   For now, if you'd like to leave a comment, please visit this site from an alternate browser like Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Chrome

Pflaumenkuchen (Yeasted Plum Cake) 
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen, by Luisa Weiss

Don't let the yeast here fool you into thinking that this is a complicated recipe.  It's not.   Since you're using instant yeast, you can mix it right in with the dry ingredients.  You can't go wrong.

A note about the yeast:  The recipe in Luisa's book calls for fresh yeast, the kind that comes in foil-wrapped cakes in the refrigerated aisle at the market.  Luisa told me that she could find it, no problem, at the Key Foods just a few blocks from her apartment in Queens, but - despite calling every grocery in the Boston area, from the large chains down to the small specialty shops - I came up dry.  (The closest I got was one place that carries it only seasonally, starting around Thanksgiving.)  So, I did some math, substituted instant yeast, and adapted the method accordingly.  It worked beautifully.  If you'd like to try a version of this recipe with dry (not instant) yeast, click over to Olga's Pflaumenkuchen on her site, Sassy Radish.

For the dough:
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast
Grated zest of half a lemon (I made it once without; still great.)
Pinch of salt
½ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg yolk

For the fruit and topping:
1¼ pounds Italian prune plums
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan.  

Make the dough: 
Put the milk and the 3 tablespoons butter into a small saucepan and heat over the lowest possible flame, swirling occasionally, until the butter has just melted.  Set aside to cool until lukewarm.  Meanwhile, blend the dry ingredients - the flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, yeast, lemon zest, and salt - in a large bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolk with the lukewarm milk and butter.  Pour the mixture into the dry ingredients, and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a loose dough.  Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.  It won't take more than a few folds and turns.  If your dough is sticky, add a tablespoon or two of flour, only as much as you need to keep it manageable.  Form the dough into a ball, place it in the buttered pan, cover with a towel, and let it rise until it's doubled in bulk, anywhere from one to two and a half hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  (Watch the dough, not the clock.)

Prepare the fruit and topping:
While the dough rises, heat the oven to 350 degrees, and pit and quarter the prune plums.  Stir together the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and the cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and leave to cool.        

When the dough is ready, deflate it with your fingertips.  Push it down evenly along the bottom of the pan and about 1-inch up the sides.  Gently press the quartered plums into the dough at a 45-degree angle, making concentric circles.  (Start at the edge and work your way toward the middle.)  If you have extra plums on your cutting board once you've arranged your circles, squeeze them in somewhere.  The more plums, the better.  Sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mixture, spoon the melted butter over top, and set aside, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the crust is brown and the plums are bubbling.  Cool until the fruit is no longer hot.       

Luisa suggests serving with unsweetened whipped cream, but I like it plain.  

9.10.2012

Maine

Sometimes I think I know all there is to know about this guy.


(Eli, not the baby.) (The baby is Mia, and I definitely don't know all there is to know about her.)

But then last fall, Eli ran a half-marathon up in Newburyport and got a yo-yo at the finish line, and the next thing I know, he's shooting the moon in our living room.  I married a man who can yo-yo.  I had no idea. 


Nor did I have any idea that this man, armed with a grill and the mantra "low and slow," can cook thirteen chops of lamb to rosy, tender perfection.  This I discovered a couple of weeks ago, when we joined our friend Molly for the weekend in Maine.




Molly's parents have a house up there right on the Piscataqua River, and from the backyard you can see boats and docks and a shed with the face of an owl.




This is what the kitchen counter looked like a few minutes after we arrived.  Between the two loaves of bread is a package of Jan's Farmhouse Crisps.  They're our Official Summer Cracker of 2012, and early polls predict an uncontested bid for the fall title as well.  Our Official Summer Cheese, in case you're wondering, is Twig Farm Washed Rind.  We brought that up with us, too.  Also:  a jar of granola, a loaf of corn bread, a long crackly "flute" from Hi-Rise bakery (their version of pain à l'ancienne), a jar of their apricot preserves, some pine nuts and Urfa pepper for a recipe we'd make one night, and a bunch of tomatoes.




Molly and I circled the market the first morning we were there.  A band was playing, and these two sat and listened for a long time.



Have I ever told you that I'm not so into doughnuts? I'm not so into doughnuts.


Except for cider doughnuts, which I love.




Happy Monday. See you soon.

9.04.2012

A little bit proud

When I saw plums at the farmers’ market last week it was hard to take them seriously.  Summer’s on its last leg when plums come rolling in, I understand, but it was nearing 90 degrees that day, so what did they know?  Turns out, those plums were smarter than they looked, because here I sit in my favorite fall sweater, the one I bought on sale at the end of last season and stashed away.  I pushed the window by my desk closed before I sat down to write this morning.  I even looped a scarf around my neck.  And when I walk back to that same market later this afternoon, I’ll pull on socks and proper shoes for the first time in weeks.  Hello, September. 


September brings good stuff.  It always has, for me.  A lot of this has to do with my being a perpetual student (until now!).  Fresh notepads, fresh books, fresh pens, the feeling that anything is possible.  If I were to tell you that I entered graduate school for these things alone, I’d be exaggerating only slightly.  September kicks off with a long weekend, which is nice, and it’s the month when Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls.  That means guaranteed time with family and friends, no excuses, and plenty of hours in the kitchen, and if that’s not enough to make me cheer, September’s when Mia showed up, too. 


Mia's birthday is this Sunday, and we’re in the midst of visits from grandparents galore.  Eli’s parents were here last weekend, my mom arrives later this week, and my dad and Amy are here right now.  As I type this, I can hear my dad singing Love Potion Number 9 in the other room, Mia clapping along, and occasionally slapping at the guitar strings, and earlier today, after writing the opening two sentences of this post, I took a break to find out what on earth was going on here. [Trust me, you want to click that link.  Turn your volume UP.]  Those two are in the zone.  Their own weird little, wonderful little zone.  Here’s a photo of them from yesterday, or maybe the day before.


At dinner last night, I said something about “when Mia was a baby” and we all laughed because, obviously, she is still very much a baby.  (Just look at those CHEEKS!)  But if you compare these two photos, the one from when Mia was more blob than human, and the one from now, you'll know what I meant. 


Anyway, September.  Yes, it brings good stuff.  Which this year includes – as you might have guessed from my leading photo and the hint I dropped last week – plum crumb bars.  They’re actually plum ginger crumb bars, following as they do in the footsteps of the recipe I posted on Friday, but “plum crumb” has such a lovely ring to it; I didn’t want to mess that up.  So I’ll just tell you (I’ve already told you):  there’s ginger in them, too.  The difference is that this time, instead of mixing it in with the fruit, I stuck it in the shortbread.  I’m going to say that again, because it’s an important feature of the recipe, and also because I’m a little bit proud of this move:  the shortbread is ginger shortbread, now.  In the right context, ginger – the smell of it, the taste of it, the very word – feels so totally fall to me. That’s what I wanted here, so I tossed the lemon zest out of the dough, and tossed some vanilla, brown sugar, and cinnamon in.  It does the trick; it’s those notepads and pens and more packed into a shortbread cookie.  On top there’s a sheet of thinly sliced plums, a sprinkling of raw sugar, and a scattering of crumbs, spiced, brown, and crisp.  It’s some of my best work, I think.  As I tend to do come September. 


Happy birthday, Mia Lou.  I love you to pieces. 

Plum Crumb Bars
Inspired by the Rhubarb-Ginger Crumb Bars I wrote about last week.  

My one note here is to make sure that your ground ginger is fresh.  I’ve found that it dramatically loses its potency as it ages. 

3 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg

4-5 medium plums
2 Tablespoons raw sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees and butter a 9x13 inch pan.

Halve and then thinly slice the plums.  Set aside.  

Blend the flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, ground ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  Add the egg and the cubed butter and work into the dry ingredients with your hands to form a crumbly dough.  (Don’t worry if there are little lumps of butter here and there.)  Reserve one cup of the dough, and dump what remains into the prepared pan.  Pat it into place with your hands. 

Arrange the plum slices in slightly overlapping rows on top of the dough.  Crumble the reserved dough over top, then sprinkle with the raw sugar.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the crumb top is golden brown.  Cool before cutting into squares.

Makes 24 bars.