The sugar plums that ripen in summertime aren’t the ones that sweeten children’s dreams on the night before Christmas. Those sugarplums are candies made of dried fruit, sugar and spices. But the fresh, European-style plums of the same name are just as tantalizing, with their unusual oval shape, varying colors and delicate flavor. Once you discover how good they are for baking, you’ll have visions of Italian plum cake, too.
The dominant plum varieties in America, descendants of an Asian species, bring a dazzling array of colors to late-summer produce stalls. We all know the classic American plum, its maroon skin so dark it’s almost black. But cousins of the same plum can be pale yellow, red with pink flesh or even speckled pink and white in the case of the Dappled Dandy, a Pluot, or plum-apricot hybrid. They share one thing in common, though: a cute, round shape.
Not so in Europe. Yes, there are round, yellow mirabelles, so tiny they look like toy fruit. And there are round, green Reine Claudes. But the most common plums of the European species are oval. Their skin is deep purple, their flesh pale lime-yellow.
In America, we call them sugar or Italian plums, and we grow them primarily to dry into prunes. (In France, the word for plum is actually prune.) Their high sugar content makes them ideal for drying and preserving. But you can also find them at farmers’ markets and grocery stores that feature interesting produce departments.
They’re worth tracking down. I like to eat them plain. They don’t have that tart bite that many round, black plums do. More importantly, their natural sweetness calls out to be baked into something delicious. And summer is the time for fruit to play a leading role in any dessert.
The following cake was an adamant July birthday request. Halved sugar plums are pressed into the batter of an Italian-style cake made with almond flour and egg whites and baked until they’re meltingly tender. The almond and plum flavors complement each other beautifully. Dusted with powdered sugar, the cake is both rustic and elegant. It’s just the sort of thing you might eat on a piazza in Italy.
Plum Almond Cake
(Adapted from Elaine McCardel’s The Italian Dish blog)
• 5 egg whites
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 2/3 cup almond flour
• 1/2 cup flour
• 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
• 6 Italian/sugar plums, halved, pits removed
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour 9-inch round or square baking pan.
Beat egg whites and sugar in large bowl until billowy (a few minutes). Fold in flours.
In separate bowl, combine melted butter, milk, almond and lemon zest. Slowly incorporate in egg white mixture.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Arrange plum halves on top, pressing them into batter a bit. You can arrange them cut-side up or cut-side down.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.