There are so many touchstones that announce fall’s arrival. Think school buses, shorter days, cooler nights and mums in bloom. For me, an early harbinger is the arrival of Italian prune plums. In late August, they’re heaped next to the peaches and melons; in September, they’re next to the apples and pears; in October they’re scattered among the hard-skinned squash — and then they’re not. Their season is short and always seems to end abruptly, making desserts like this simple cake one to make early and often.
This is a one-bowl cake that’s stirred together in three easy steps. Even as I describe it as simple, I know I’m guilty of shortchanging its pleasures. It’s a tender, brown-sugar tea cake studded with plums and built on a blend of all-purpose flour and yellow cornmeal. The slight coarseness that you get from the cornmeal saves the cake from being too soft and perhaps predictable. Not that there’s anything common about the spices; the mix is a puzzler, and I think you should offer an extra slice to the first person who picks up on the Chinese five-spice powder.
The Chinese five-spice powder that I use (Penzeys) comprises cinnamon, star anise, anise seed, ginger and cloves, but I’ve seen some blends with Sichuan pepper and some with fennel and some with six ingredients (and I don’t know what’s up with that). For this recipe, I added extra cinnamon and ginger, because I love those spices, and I especially love them with plums.
Speaking of great combos, the flavors of this cake go beautifully with honey. To get it into the mix, I tried adding it to the batter, but it made the cake too moist. I tried dipping the plums in honey before baking them, but that didn’t produce enough flavor to warrant the extra step. Then I glazed the top of the cake with boiled honey, and it was just right. (Sounds so Goldilocks, doesn’t it? Felt that way, too.)
By briefly boiling the honey and then gingerly brushing it on the cake, you get a polished look to the cake and another layer of flavor. You could skip the glaze, but I don’t think you’ll want to do that.
Now about those plums. When I was a kid, they always got complete billing, namewise. They were never just called plums or even just Italian plums or prune plums. They were always “Italian prune plums,” and it wasn’t until recently that I realized the term “prune plums” wasn’t redundant but rather explained that these are the plums commonly dried to become prunes.
Italian prune plums are small, egg-shaped, very deep purple, almost blue on the outside (sometimes they seem as though they’re powdery) and a gorgeous shade of yellow-green on the inside. Baked, their skins stay dark, but their innards turn a shade of pink that borders on fuschia.
The Italian prune plums called Empress are also delicious, but much larger than the regular prune plums. Of course, you can use them here (I’d slice them), just as you can use other kinds of plums (or even other soft fruits or berries; just make sure to choose a quick-baking fruit, because the cake is in the oven for less than half an hour).
If you’re celebrating the Jewish High Holidays, you’ll be happy to have this cake on hand. Because it’s not made with dairy, it’s pareve-perfect after a meal that includes meat; great as part of break-fast for Yom Kippur; and a guarantee that the New Year will start off sweet.
Photo by Deb Lindsey. This story appeared originally in my Everyday Dorie column in the Washington Post.