Monday, October 8, 2012

Pflaumekuchen (German Plum Cake)

Plum Cake...mmm, plum I love plum cake season !

Plum cake is another one of those things that I grew up eating, courtesy of my good German heritage. There would come a time in the fall when you'd start to see the small plums called Italian or prune plums -  little dark purple oblong jewels, smaller than standard plums, firm and juicy sweet-tart. As soon as those little babies showed up, you knew it was high time to get your butt over to Oma (my great-grandmother)'s house - for there was bound to be plum kuchen.

Oma's kuchen was a thing of beauty. Made in a good-sized baking pan, it had a lovely golden base with neat rows of plums marching down the length of it. Not exactly cakey or bready or pie-crusty, but somehow a delicious combination of all three - with lots of plummy goodness in each square. Oma would offer you a cup of tea or coffee, and you'd sit there with your cake, chatting with one of the most special people on earth - who somehow always knew just the right thing to say to you - and you would think that you were the luckiest person in the world. I never did find out the secret of the plum cake, though...I wish I had asked, about that and so many other things.

Four generations of German awesomeness...that's me in the middle, Oma on the right.
Sadly, there is no plum cake in front of me !
I have been on a quest to recreate the plum cake for many years now, and have made some very fine cakes along the way...none of them quite like Oma's, though. Many of the recipes I found called for a yeast dough, which somehow seems wrong - I mean, I'm sure they're perfectly nice cakes and all, just not what I was looking for. Some recipes had the plums sunk way down into the cake, which again might be delicious - but I was adamant, I wanted my plums on top. The other thing that kept popping up in recipes was almonds...and I knew I didn't want almonds.

Until I found this cake.

This cake broke all kinds of my rules - it involved not only almonds, but a glaze - and it was made in a tart pan. Definitely not what I remembered from Oma's kitchen. But the darn thing just looked so good...the plums were gorgeous, and the crust looked and sounded like the golden deliciousness that I remembered. And it looked easy...not that I don't love me a dessert challenge, but there was football to consider. So I went to Russo's, and bought my plums, and mixed my batter and crossed my fingers. And oh my god, what a cake. This thing was Plum Perfection - buttery crust, sweet-tart good it brought tears to my eyes. And it was in fact super easy - one of the great things about a tart like this is that it looks so impressive, with the lovely swirl of's really dead easy to do. Start on the outside edge, lay a plum slice down with the tip towards the outside, then add another slice and slightly your way around the outside until you get back to Plum #1. Start another circle inside that one, and so on.  A removable bottom tart pan is definitely a good investment - you can get a fine one for under $10 (Christmas Tree Shop is a great place to look). You'll find yourself using it for all sorts of tarts, savory as well as sweet...and the best part is that most tarts require no rolling, just pressing into the pan. What comes out is so professional looking, everyone will think you're a pastry chef. Which, of course, you are :)

No, this isn't exactly Oma's kuchen...but she would have loved it, I am sure. And maybe that's what she was really trying to tell trust my instincts and take my chances. And if you make it with love, they will come to the table. Thank you, Oma.

A note on the plums : this cake will work fine with regular plums...they are harder to pit, though. Choose small ones if using standard plums - ripe but still firm (not mushy).

Pflaumekuchen (German Plum Cake)
adapted from the Boston Globe

Butter (for the pan)
1⅓ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅔ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
12 prune plums (or 8 regular plums), halved, pitted then sliced about ½ inch thick.
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
 ½ cup apricot preserves
Sweetened whipped cream (optional)

Set the oven at 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch tart pan with a removable base.

In a bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder. In another bowl, cream butter, granulated sugar, egg, and vanilla with an electric mixer until blended. Gradually add the flour mixture into the butter mixture and combine until all the flour is incorporated. Transfer the mixture to the tart pan (it will be crumbly) and with lightly floured fingers press evenly onto the bottom and sides of the pan. Arrange the plums, cut sides up, in circles on top.

Bake for 35 - 40 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Leave the oven on to toast the almonds (below), and set the tart on a wire rack.

In a small baking dish, toast the almonds, turning often, for 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned. Keep an eye on them – they can burn quickly !
In a small saucepan  heat the preserves, stirring constantly, until they comes to a boil. Spoon the preserves over the tart (brushing with a pastry brush if you have one - makes it easier to get each plum).  Scatter the almonds on top.

Serve with whipped cream (optional)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tartiflette with Brie and Bacon

aka the "potato bacon brie sex thing"
Yes, we're back ! This post brought to you by fortuitous shopping choices and a healthy dose of Google :)

Fortuitous Shopping Choice #1 : the boy has developed a rather delightful habit. He has decreed that anytime we hit the cheese counter at Russo's (or any other place with a good variety of fine cheeses) that we must try a new cheese...or new to him, anyway. Last week's selection was a rather pungent Brie de Meaux - and by "pungent" I mean "way too strong to eat on a cracker for a cheese virgin".  A little too much even for a committed cheese addict like back to the fridge it went, vague thoughts of jamming, pastry wrapping and baking trailing behind.

Fortuitous Shopping Choice #2 - 5lb bags of potatoes were "buy one get one free" this week at Stop + Shop. I mean, why wouldn't you get the free one ? Potatoes never go to waste around here !

Which brings us, of course, to Google. Turns out you can find all sorts of interesting things when you type "Brie" and "potato" into Google. The one that immediately grabbed my interest, of course, also involved the words "bacon" and "creamy". Seriously, does that not just scream "Culinary Orgasm" ? The website I ended up on was for Waitrose, which is apparently a grocery chain in the UK. The website has a really great-looking recipe section which I plan to explore thoroughly.

Thus was my introduction to the tartiflette. Tartiflette is the most lovely French dish of potatoes, cheese, bacon (or lardons) and cream...that I had never heard of in my life. Why have I been denied this deliciousness ? It's like the best scalloped potatoes you've ever had in your life, except by invoking the words "scalloped potatoes" I fear I may scare off people of a certain age that were tormented by Betty Crocker boxed monstrosities in their youths. Friends, do not fear the Tartiflette...this is truly Culinary Orgasm material. It was a bit tricky translating the Brit measurements (and then of course adjusting the proportions as needed), but your intrepid blogger persevered...and thus I present my version of this dish.

A note on the cheese - traditional Tartiflette calls for Reblochon cheese, which is tricky to find (I may search it out now for comparison purposes, though). Brie - particularly Brie de Meaux - works beautifully. Do use the entire Brie, including the rind - it's perfectly edible, and is perfect in this dish as it just melts into the cream. I was a tiny bit short of the required amount of Brie, so I threw in a bit of one of my all time favorite cheeses - Sottocenere al Tartufo, or truffle cheese. I knew the truffle cheese would play very well with Brie (exhibit A : the ethereal fondue from Sprigs, recreated here ), but this exceeded even my expectations - it was sooooo good with the potatoes and bacon that I am calling for a tiny bit of truffle oil in the recipe (only a tiny bit though...truffle oil abuse is a terrible crime). If you don't have or don't like truffle oil, by all means leave it out - this dish will still absolutely rock without it.

One other note on the Brie...a ripe Brie is super hard to cut as it's so runny. If yours is lusciously oozing all over the cutting board, do yourself a favor and stick it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so before you try and cut it. Way easier !

We served this with ham and spinach, but really it would make a lovely meal all by itself..happy cheesy potato bacon goodness !

Tartiflette with Brie and Bacon
Adapted (and translated) from Waitrose
Serves 6

2 tsp vegetable oil
8 oz bacon (thick cut if possible), cut into small cubes
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 good-sized sprigs of fresh thyme
1 cup (8 oz) heavy or whipping cream
1 cup (8 oz) whole milk
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp truffle oil (optional)
Fresh ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed well (but not peeled), thinly sliced
9 oz Brie, cut into small slices or cubes

Preheat the oven to 350°F, and lightly grease a 2 quart ovenproof dish.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the bacon 4-5 minutes until beginning to brown. Add the onion, and cook for another 5 minutes or so until the onion starts to brown as well.

Chop the thyme leaves, reserving a few to garnish. Place the thyme, cream, milk and garlic in a large pan. Bring to a simmer, add the potatoes, then cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the bacon-onion mixture and the truffle oil (if using) and season with freshly ground black pepper. Spoon half the potato mixture in the base of the prepared dish, then top with half the sliced cheese. Repeat, finishing with a layer of cheese.

Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife and the top is golden. Let sit at least 10 minutes before serving.