When we first moved into this house, Lucy was only 3. She turned 4 here a few months later, the party a spill of children in their swim suits and their hair floating out behind them as they ran, laughing. I look at those photographs sometimes and think, “There is her childhood. If nothing else, we’ve given her joy.”
And she has given us so much joy, this girl of the lately in love with a British accent and the spontaneous ballets in the living room. That first summer we lived here, she pointed up at the purple-grey leaves splayed out above her — the plum tree. When she ate her first plum from the tree in the yard just off her bedroom, she giggled. And then she ate another. And another. Every spring, she has pointed to the plum tree and said, “They’re coming soon, Mama. The plums. Oh, the plums!” When Desmond arrived here, after the week after his birth in another state, Lucy wanted to take him outside to lay on a blanket under the plum tree with him. He was home. We were home.
Sadly, something is happening with the plum tree. Every year, there are fewer leaves, fewer buds, less fruit. One quarter of the tree is balded, as Lu likes to say. No leaves. Spindly grey branches scratching at the sky. We had a few clutches of plums last summer, in late June. This year, not one.
Lu is 8 now. She understands that time moves on. Things change. We still had picnics under the tree this summer, but we were chasing Desmond as he ran in his swim suit, laughing, through the yard. This year, we bought plums from the local farmers and the grocery store instead. Mostly, we accepted bag after bag of plums from our friends’ trees when they didn’t what to do with all that fruit.
And to celebrate the last day of summer, we made a plum cake.
This cake came with an enthusiastic recommendation from our friend Tita. I’ve known Tita for 24 years now. She does not gush easily. Very little with Tita arrives with an exclamation point. (Oh, and how much of my writing used to end with an exclamation point. It pains me to see it now. I’m growing older too.) So, if she insists we try something, we try it.
All the best foods come out of urgency. What is there left to eat in the cupboard before the next paycheck arrives? We found chanterelles in a secret place in the woods — what shall we do with them? And, my favorite — every one of our neighbors has given us a bowl full of plums from their tree. What are we going to do with all these plums?!
So, when Tita told us about her favorite plum cake, we jumped on it. It’s from a great old book called The Illustrated Encylopedia of American Cooking. (The title is pretty funny, since the illustrations are sparse and mostly dark little black and white photos.) It’s a workhorse with plenty of spark. From what I understand, it was put together by home economics teachers from all across America and compiled into a book. 5000 recipes. Best of all, it’s arranged by ingredient. Have too many peaches in the house? Why not freeze them for later? Or make spiced canned peaches? There are Persian peaches, peach pleaser, peach-blue cheese salad, pickled peaches, peaches supreme, peach romanoff, quick pickled peaches, frozen peach salad, peach pickle salad mold (I haven’t had the courage to make that yet), peaches beaujolais, spicy peach salad, brandy peaches, and my favorite, peachy custard high hats. Plus, at least 15 more. This book is meant to make you cook with what you have.
And every recipe I have tried has been delightful.
What’s interesting to me is that every recipe is about 3 to 6 lines long. The authors assume you know how to cook already. They give you the ingredients and quick reminders of what to do. And that’s it. Oh, how different recipes are today.
When we told Tita we had a plethora of plums — what are we going to do with all these plums? — she pointed to the cookbook she gave me years ago and said, “Make the Delicious Plum Cake. We can’t get enough of it lately.”
And so we did. We made it into a gluten-free plum cake.
So should you.
gluten-free plum cake
This plum cake really is delicious. And it’s such a good recipe that all we did to make it gluten-free was substitute 280 grams of our gluten-free all-purpose flour for the 2 cups of AP flour in the original.
Maybe it’s the shortening I used in place of the butter to make it dairy-free — you could use oil instead, if you want — or the combination of plums, prune juice, and pecans, but this is the lightest fluffiest gluten-free cake I’ve ever made. We took it to a Labor Day picnic with friends and the cake disappeared pretty quickly. Our friend Sam, who runs the great bakery here on Vashon, ate two pieces. I’m always pretty happy when the baker likes a cake.
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 350°. Grease 2 8-inch cake pans.
Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
Cream the shortening and sugar. Put the shortening and coconut sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment at low speed, cream the shortening and sugar together until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, until they are fully incorporated into the shortening and sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Finish the batter. With the stand mixer running on low, add about 1/2 of the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Drizzle in the prune juice, slowly. Add the remaining dry ingredients. Turn off the stand mixer. Add the chopped plums and pecans and stir them with a rubber spatula.
Bake the cake. Fill each prepared cake pan halfway. Lightly tap the cake pans on the counter to settle the batter evenly. Bake the cakes until the edges of the cakes have slightly pulled away from the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert them onto a cooling rack. Let them cool completely.
Feel like playing? You could use any nuts that work for you here. I love the caramel flavor of coconut sugar, but if you don’t have any, you could use 1/2 white sugar and 1/2 brown sugar. Don’t skip the prune juice. It intensifies the plum flavor of the cake without any unexpected results.
You could use any frosting you want with this. However, we especially liked a cream cheese frosting with a touch of prune juice in it. Delicious indeed.