September 05, 2012

Plum Cake, Sandy Shores, and Dinner with Friends

There are moments that require photography, and then there are moments that don’t.

Photographs—however beautiful—never capture, never replace, never stand-in for the lived moment. They make something new where there was previously nothing. We live through them in many ways, but they don’t account—they simply can’t account—for the tangible, the very physical and visceral, experience of living.

This was how it was for the plum cake and me. We found ourselves on the distant shores of the Point Reyes coastline in Northern California, nestled in warm arms, feeling the breeze of the ocean on our skin, tasting the sweet, salty air on our lips. That was ceremony enough.

I could have photographed that day, but I didn’t need to. It etched itself into my mind in a deeper way—and for me, bound to food as I am, it will always carry the taste of warm plums and brown sugar, the bite of lemon zest, and the moistness of a sour cream cake.

I did eventually photograph the cake—a different one (the second of the weekend)—when I took it the very next day to dinner with friends. (You can find those images below.) But the cake didn’t require it; it didn’t ask for it. So I listened, on that first day, and recorded something else—in a non-photographic way—instead.

When I think of the cake, and when I think of those sand dunes, I find some parallels between them: the way that the dunes rise and fall, nestling things, hidden, secretively, out of view, is very similar to the way in which this cake conceals its pockets of warm, almost-melted plum. Your fork will seek them out—they taste like compote; they are slightly tart, with only their natural sweetness to carry them; they melt and mingle with the crispness of the brown sugar and the moistness of the cake’s tender crumb.

As good as all of this is on the first day, when the cake is still warm, wrapped snugly in parchment, it is even better the next morning, with fresh memories and warm laughter still singing in your veins. I recommend it both ways.

And then, again still, on a sleepy Sunday evening, with a full weekend at your back, it is also wonderful shared with friends.

We didn’t really need a photograph of that evening either, so delicious the experience was—to be gathered around an old wooden table, drunk on wine, pasta, and a sweet dessert—but I took one anyway. For you, mostly.

Happy plum season.

Plum Cake (adapted from Food52)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for pan)

1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 cup unsalted butter (plus more for pan)
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs (room temperature)
3/4 cup sour cream (room temperature)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons light brown sugar, firmly packed

6-7 red plums (or Flavor King pluots)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 2 inch round cake pan. Lay down a piece of parchment that will cover the bottom of the pan and that will reach up 1-2 inches on two sides over the rim of the pan (this will make the cake very easy to remove and serve). Butter the parchment, then dust the pan with flour; tap out excess. 

Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt with a light touch. 

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and the sugar using a wooden spoon (this is my technique), or an electric mixer, until pale in color. Mix in the eggs one by one, until well incorporated. Add to this the sour cream, vanilla extract, and lemon zest, and stir to combine. 

Add the flour mixture, stirring until just combined (do not over-mix or the batter will become tough at this stage). 

Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out evenly. Sprinkle the batter with 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Quarter 4-5 of the plums. Arrange the plum quarters in a circle over the batter, with one quarter in the center. The plums should have approximately 1/2-3/4 inches of space between them (don't worry about over plum-ing the cake). 

Dollop the rest of the batter over the plums, and spread it out to make an even layer. Cut the remaining plums into eights, and arrange the slices in a circle, with two slices overlapping in the center of the cake (about 1 inch of space between slices works well on the top of the cake). Sprinkle the top of the cake with the remaining brown sugar. 

Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until golden and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean (avoiding the fruit). 

Let the cake cool on a rack, in the pan, for 20 minutes. Lift the parchment on both sides to remove the cake from the pan. 

I like to serve the cake on its baking parchment. You may serve it warm, and then eat it again the next day for breakfast. 

Wrap the cake in parchment to store.