It all happened a couple of weeks ago while in the midst of moving into our new home in New Orleans. While we were no longer swimming in boxes, and the with the furniture was mostly in place, our cupboard would have definitely registered something approaching recognition on Mother Hubbard's face. There was only one thing for it - a stocking up trip to my all-time favorite grocery store in the metro, Dorignac's on Veterans Parkway in Metairie.
And there they were, right by the entrance, stopping me dead in my tracks. Prune plums, like Concord grapes, are simply not available year round. In fact, neither are they a fruit you that will find just anywhere. First there is the relatively recent and perverse obsession with blotting the word "prune" from the lexicon (they aren't "prunes" anymore, but "dried plums" for those keeping score at home.) What is a grocer to do? Label the bin "plums that could be useful for making dried plums?" Fortunately for us, New Orleans is home to a substantial Italian culinary tradition, and the prune plum figures into this culture. It is a fruit that reaches its true potential when baked, a process that allows the intense flavors of its deep purple skin to burst forth in all their glory. Reinforcing the notion that I'd fallen into some rarefied prune plum cosmic reality, they were also on sale for only $1.69 a pound. Too busy to bake? Probably. But this opportunity left me with no choice.
My grandmother's plum cake is a thing of pleasant childhood memories, and I'm sure I babbled about it on the drive home. Once there, I called my mother to get the recipe, it not being among my clippings. Luckily she knew where it was - it had been printed in the Cary, Illinois jubilee cookbook published some time in the 1960s. Reading the ingredients over the phone and transcribing them was fun, but mom and I both agreed that it was missing salt. Regina Hohenstein, aka "grandma," was not above holding out on a key ingredient. But there was no fooling us. The recipe is not Italian, at least to my knowledge, but makes a fantastic after dinner dessert with coffee or an equally tasty breakfast. Here it is below (with all of the ingredients!)
1/2 lb. butter
1 C sugar
2 C flour
grated (or better yet, Microplaned) rind of a lemon
1/2 tsp. salt
sugar and cinnamon for dusting.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with a mixer, adding sugar and salt. Separate the 4 eggs and beat in the yolks only, reserving the whites in a separate mixing bowl. Add flour and lemon rind and mix into butter/sugar mixture with a wooden spoon or similar utensil. At this point it should be fairly stiff, almost like a cookie dough. With a clean mixer, beat the egg whites until nice and fluffy and then fold into the batter. Once you have incorporated the egg whites, spread into a 12x18 ungreased jelly roll pan. Don't be afraid to spread it fairly thin - it will, in fact rise. Just make sure it is even. Slice prune plums into quarters, pitting them (be careful, the edges of prune plums can be like little razor blades - I sliced my thumb open on one!) and placing the wedges just as close together on top of the batter as they will lie. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350. The cake should not be too brown - you will know it is done when the edges start pulling away from the pan. If it starts getting brown, pull it out!