Spiced Plum Cake

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.

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Spiced Plum Cake

10 servings

This is a one-bowl, dairy-free cake that’s stirred together in three easy steps, with the happy union of Chinese five-spice powder, ground ginger and honey to flavor a tender, cornmeal-laced crumb.
The number of Italian prune plums you use is really up to you, although the cake is slim and too, too many plums might make it soggy.
You’ll need a 9-inch cake pan with high sides (at least 2 inches), or you can use a springform pan.
MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be covered and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days.

  • 1/2 cup flavorless oil, such as canola, plus more for greasing the pan (may substitute butter for greasing the pan)
  • 1 cup flour, plus more for the pan
  • 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 9 to 11 Italian plums, preferably small, halved and pitted (scant 1 pound total; see headnote)
  • 1/4 cup honey, for glazing

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little oil to grease the pan well, then dust the interior with flour and tap out the excess. Place the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, aluminum foil or a silicone liner.

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, Chinese five-spice powder, cinnamon and ginger in a medium bowl.

Whisk together the eggs, brown sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is smooth, then whisk in the vanilla extract. Pour in the oil, whisking until the batter is shiny and homogenous. Add the flour mixture all at once, whisking until thoroughly blended. Pour the batter into the pan.

Arrange the plums, cut side down, on the batter in whatever pattern you like.

Bake the cake (middle rack) for 23 to 26 minutes or until it is golden brown, slightly springy to the touch and just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan; a bamboo skewer or other tester inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire cooling rack; cool for 5 minutes, then run a table knife around the edges of the pan and carefully unmold the cake; position it top/plum side up on another rack. Put a piece of parchment paper or foil under that rack (to catch drips), and have a pastry brush at hand.

When the cake is unmolded, begin the glaze. Place a wide skillet over medium-high heat, pour in the honey and boil for no more than 1 minute, just until the honey colors lightly. Remove from the heat; use a pastry brush to gently spread the boiled honey over the surface of the cake. A light touch is important here because the cake is tender.

Allow the cake to rest until it is only just warm or reaches room temperature before cutting and serving.