Torte report 

This is a story about a plum torte recipe that has taken the world by storm. I’ve told it once before, but it deserves to be retold because, simply, the torte is that good. The recipe is simple in that it requires almost no prep time, but it’s 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 can be stored longer—especially when dried into dried prunes, also known simply as prunes. Italian prune plums are lovely purple oblong spheroids with powdery-looking skin. The tree is common in backyards nationwide, though many people don’t bother harvesting their trees. The fruits can be found at farmers’ markets, Italian specialty stores and elsewhere, especially in October and November.

The Italian purple prune plum torte recipe first infected my little town thanks to Greg Patent, a food writer whose 10th book, A Baker’s Odyssey, was a 2008 James Beard Award finalist. When Greg wrote about the recipe for the Missoulian, it quickly became the talk of the town.

People gushed about the torte around their grills as they rushed to finish their steaks so they could eat dessert. They spoke of the torte in hushed voices at the bank, where they took out money to buy more flour and butter. There was torte talk in grocery checkout lines, and folks could be seen in backyards staring at their trees, perhaps for the first time, counting plums and calculating how many tortes they could make.

Greg learned the recipe from New York Times food columnist Marian Burros, who received it shortly after her wedding. 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 a few years ago: 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.

We were forced into this experiment after I failed my one and only task for the day: bring over a pound of Italian prune plums. It was early in the season and the fruit on my tree hadn’t ripened, so I bought a pound of incorrect plums at the store. Greg didn’t hide his disappointment, but soldiered on.

Before I arrived that day, Greg removed a foil-wrapped correct-fruit torte from his freezer and allowed it to warm to room temperature. After we baked a fresh wrong-fruit torte, we reheated last year’s torte in the oven at 300 degrees while the new torte cooled.

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. I realized that 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 revealing anything about these two tortes to my friend, whom I’ll call El Camino, 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.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Here’s how to follow Marian Burros’ Italian purple prune plum torte recipe.

First, what you’ll need:

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.

Ask Ari

Salsa gone bad

Dear Flash,

Q:I love salsa, especially local salsa. Sometimes, though, after a few days, my local salsa begins to taste almost carbonated. This can’t be good. What’s happening and how do I avoid it?

—I Don’t Want Food Poisoning

A:I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the “local” salsa you especially love is a fresh salsa. The surefire way to differentiate fresh salsa is that it is found in the refrigerated food section of the store. It’s made by simply combining the raw ingredients and letting them marinate together without ever having heat applied. Fresh salsa has a much more lively, vibrant and, well, fresh flavor than salsas that come in sealed jars in the unrefrigerated section. But the downside of fresh salsa is that it goes south in a hurry, even when it’s sitting in a sealed plastic tub in the grocery cooler. Once you open the tub and expose the salsa to air, the clock ticks even faster. I got so sick of this phenomenon years ago that I quit buying fresh salsa.

And though it took me a while to get over the fact that by switching to canned salsa I’d no longer be eating raw, fresh ingredients, the reality is that canned salsa can taste just as good. Canned salsa uses many of the same ingredients, though it generally doesn’t have the cilantro and lime. Once you open a jar of cooked salsa it will last up to a week before it goes bad. But before you open it, it will last a long time if it’s properly made. Thus, cooked salsa is clearly the preparation of choice for the DIY foodie who wants to put up a winter stash of salsa.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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