When putting the final touches on a cookbook manuscript, one of the toughest decisions is choosing which recipes to cut when space runs short. I have been accused of writing recipes that run long. I take that as a compliment. I want to be sure you aren’t left with unanswered questions as you read through a recipe and set out to prepare it. I want you to feel the gentle touch of a guiding hand as you work. As a result, I am almost always asked to cut a few recipes at the end, after the manuscript has been flowed into the design layouts and the editor can gauge the length of chapters and the book as whole. This Late Summer Plum Cake fell victim to that cutting.
Recently, a surfeit of plums from a friend’s tree, together with the ones I already had purchased at the farmers’ market, meant that we could not consume them all, juices dribbling down chins, while they remained in good eating condition. Having recently made the beguiling Chilled Plum Soup in Farmers’ Market Desserts, I opted for cake.
The cake is meant to be made with the small, dense-fleshed prune plums that come toward the end of summer, but my bowl was filled with juicy Flavor Rosa and Yummy Rosa varieties, some still firm, others soft. With these larger plums, I needed only five or six of them, and because they were juicier, the cake took a bit longer to bake (and turned out seductively moist).
I have been on a lemon verbena kick ever since putting the plant in my herb garden. If you don’t have any, substitute a teaspoon of finely chopped fresh lemon balm or lemon thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest.
Makes 8 servings
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 medium fresh lemon verbena leaves
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pan
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
12 small to medium, firm-ripe prune plums, halved lengthwise and pitted
Lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream or crème fraîche, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350oF, with a rack in the lower third. Butter a 9-by-2-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside. Stack the lemon verbena leaves, roll up tightly lengthwise, and cut crosswise into fine ribbons. You want about 2 packed teaspoons.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a handheld mixer), beat together the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until light, about 5 minutes. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, vanilla, and reserved lemon verbena until well combined. On low speed, add the flour mixture just until combined. (The batter will be thick.)
Spread half of the batter evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon brown sugar and top with 12 of the plum halves, cut side down. Dollop and spread the remaining batter over the plums. Arrange the remaining 12 plum halves, cut side up, over the top. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon brown sugar over the plums.
Bake until the cake is golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted near the center tests clean (assuming you haven’t hit a plum), 50 to 55 minutes, rotating the pan front to back a little past halfway through baking. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes.
Run a thin knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake sides. Invert a flat plate over the pan. Using oven mitts if needed, grasp the plate and pan tightly together on both sides and quickly invert the plate and pan to release the cake onto the plate. Lift off the pan and peel off the parchment. Invert the cake again onto a serving plate.
Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream, if desired.