Flash in the Pan 

Stewing on prunes

In the late 1990s, the California Prune Board knew it had a problem. The largest age demographic of its consumer base was also the oldest. And the major selling point of prunes inescapably invoked images of poop. In 2000, the board changed its name to the California Dried Plums Board, and began calling its product "dried plums." As part of this rebranding effort, the board attempted to shift the focus of prunes from fecal improvement to another important health benefit, a newly discovered association between prunes and bone strength. The importance of prunes on bone health, which subsequent research has supported, makes women a prime target market for the industry, as they are more prone to osteoporosis.

According to the California Dried Plums Board's website, "Research conducted in the U.S. showed that our target audience, women ages 25 to 54, responded more favorably to the name dried plums. It is also more descriptive for people who don't know that prunes are fresh plums that have been dried."

Calling prunes "dried plums" is misleading. When most people think "plum," they think of the juicy round fruit sold in stores. But if you dehydrate one of those, it will not resemble most people's idea of a prune. Instead of a plump, dark, chewy orb it will be a flat puddle with a seed bulging in the middle, vaguely reminiscent of the planet Saturn, but more pink. And more than likely, that seed will be difficult to extract from the flesh of the dried plum.

There are plums, and there are prune plums. Only one of these is an exceptional laxative. The other, which is typically grown and marketed for eating fresh, is often referred to the Asian plum. These are juicier than prune plums, with less fiber and sugar. Most varieties of prune plum, on the other hand, are of European descent. They are generally free-stone, meaning the flesh isn't attached to the pit, which makes them easier to process and cook with. The Asian plums are usually of the cling-stone persuasion, which means the pit is difficult to remove, something that doesn't matter as much when you're eating them fresh. You just stop eating when you're down to a tattered layer of fruit fiber stuck to the pit.

There are more differences between Asian-style plums and European-style prune plums. But rarely are these differences felt as dramatically as in a very special torte recipe, popularized by New York Times food columnist Marian Burros, that calls for purple Italian prune plums.

"[The prune plums] are engulfed by the batter during baking and that gives the torte its special quality," explained James Beard Award winning food writer Greg Patent, who first turned me onto this recipe.

Patent had agreed to walk me through it if I brought the ingredients to his house. The fruit on my Italian plum tree was not quite ripe, so I went to the store. Of course, it only stocked Asian-style plums. I brought those to Greg's house, assuming it wouldn't matter.

He frowned when I arrived with my Asian plums. It had to be purple prune plums, he said, definitively. But we decided to try anyway with the Asian plums, to see what would happen. For comparison, Patent removed a torte from his freezer that was a year old, but with the correct fruit.

click to enlarge ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

The torte's magnificence is amplified by the fact that, wrapped in plastic and foil, it can survive a full year in the freezer with negligible loss of quality, allowing you to eat purple Italian prune plum torte uninterrupted until the prune plums ripen again the following year.

While Patent's year-old torte thawed, we prepared a wrong-fruit torte from scratch. While this year's torte cooled, we reheated last year's at 300 degrees.

The fresh, wrong-fruit torte was delicious, and I wouldn't have had a problem with it were it not for the presence of last year's torte to compare it with. But side-by-side it was evident that the plums in the wrong-fruit torte, being plums and not prune plums, had too much water, which affected the torte's consistency. And their flavor wasn't sweet or assertive enough to balance the cake batter below. The wrong-fruit torte was good, but not contagiously outstanding like last year's torte, despite its year in the freezer.

I brought the leftovers to a friend with a sharp sense of taste. Without saying anything about the ingredients or relative ages of the two tortes, I let him try last year's right-fruit model.

"I like it very much," he said.

Then I let him try the new torte, fresh out of the oven.

"This one is less satisfactory," he said. "Something's wrong with the fruit."

Here's what you'll need to make Marian Burros' purple prune plum torte:

1 cup sugar (Plus a tablespoon or two for the topping)

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

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 sugar and butter, either by hand or with a mixer. Add the flour, baking powder, eggs and salt, and 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 on top with the cut sides facing against the batter, skin sides up. Mix the cinnamon with the 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 ring.

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