This is a story about a plum torte recipe that has taken the world by storm. The recipe is simple, in that it requires almost no prep time, but demanding, as baked goods can be, in that it has little tolerance for eyeballed quantities or creative license. One aspect in particular requires your unconditional obedience: The fruit must be purple Italian prune plums.
Prunes and plums are distinct categories of tree, both of whose fruits are called plums. Prune plums are smaller, denser, drier, and longer-storing—especially when dried into dried prunes, also known simply as prunes. Italian prune plums are lovely, purple, oblong spheroids with powdery-looking skin. The fruits can be found at farmers’ markets, Italian specialty stores, and elsewhere, especially in October and November.
Greg Patent, a food writer, learned the recipe from New York Times food columnist Marian Burros. In her book Cooking Comfort, Burros writes:
“Because of reader demand, this recipe was published in one form or another in The New York Times almost every year between 1983 and 1995, when the then-editor of the food section told me to tell readers it was the last year it would be published, and if they lost it, it was too bad.”
The torte’s magnificence is amplified by the fact that it stores long enough in the freezer to allow you to eat torte uninterrupted until the plums ripen again the following year. To test this point, as well as the assertion that the plums must be the purple Italian prune plum variety, Greg and I did an experiment: We pitted a year-old Italian prune plum torte from his freezer against a fresh torte that we made with some round, juicy, dark red plums I bought at the store.
The fresh, wrong-fruit torte was delicious, and I wouldn’t have had any problem with it were it not for last year’s torte to compare it with. The plums in the wrong-fruit torte, being plums and not prune plums, had too much water, which affected the torte’s consistency. The wrong-fruit torte was good, but not contagiously outstanding like the right-fruit torte.
For confirmation, I brought both tortes to a friend with a sharp sense of taste. Without telling this friend, whom I’ll call El Camino, anything about these two tortes, I let him try last year’s model.
“Oh, I like it very much,” said El Camino.
Then El Camino tried this year’s model.
“This one is less satisfactory,” El Camino said. “Something’s wrong with the fruit.”
Marian Burros’ Italian purple prune plum torte recipe
• 1 cup sugar, plus 1 or 2 tablespoons extra
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
• 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 2 eggs
• Pinch of salt
• 24 halves pitted Italian prune plums
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more
Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Allow the butter and eggs to come to room temperature. Cream the 1 cup sugar and stick of butter, either by hand or with a mixer. Add the flour, baking powder, eggs and salt, and beat to mix well. Scoop into a 9- or 10-inch buttered springform pan (a springform pan is a baking pan with a clamping side/rim that detaches from the pan’s bottom). Smear the batter so it fills the pan evenly, and arrange the plum halves, skin side down. Mix the cinnamon with the remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar and sprinkle over the top.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center pulls out clean. Remove and cool. Use a butter knife to separate the torte edge from the springform, then unclamp and remove the side.