I thought I had finally reached an age when I no longer cared what people thought of me. I realized this wasn't the case when, out of fear of attracting unwanted attention at a new job, I hid the snack that I had been eating.
It was just a bag of prunes, but I behaved as though it was crack. Knowing how closed-minded people can be about certain foods — I still bear the scars of a childhood of raw green peppers in my lunch — I thought it best to eat them on the sly.
Safely tucked away in my desk (or relegated to the drawer of shame, depending on how you look at it), I continued to reach for them, albeit surreptitiously. Though disappointed in myself for buying into the lunchroom tyranny of my youth, I was still not brave enough to out my eclectic tastes.
As a child, the stigma of the prune was a learned behavior. My natural inclination was to adore them. I recall reaching for the prune juice, which seemed to stay good forever, as early on as age 6.
If there were a bag of prunes to be found in the refrigerator, I would uncannily home in on it and help myself to one, then two, three or four before my mother would limit my intake. (And with good reason: for details, check the "Digestive Dos and Don'ts" section at www.prunes.org.)
I never understood why in our culture — their laxative properties notwithstanding — prunes have been associated with geriatrics. Despite a brief flirtation with popularity in the 1980s, thanks to The Silver Palate Cookbook's brilliant recipe for chicken Marbella, a tender marinated chicken dish with green olives and prunes, the dried fruit elicits far more respect across the Atlantic than it does stateside. In France, prunes soaked in Armagnac are a traditional accompaniment to foie gras.
In my Russian Jewish family, prunes appeared with regularity at festive times — at the holiday dinner table in the form of fruit compote, or enhancing the already popular brisket. Less assimilated relatives who still frequented Russian stores would offer guests candy bowls filled with individually wrapped chocolate-covered prunes, a delicacy reserved for special occasions.
Yet, in the United States, prunes have such an unglamorous image that in 2001 prune promoters won federal approval to refer to them as "dried plums" on packages and in advertisements, hoping to attract younger consumers.
I may have bowed to workplace pressures and kept my prune-love a secret, but in the kitchen it's a different story. I appreciate the diverse applications of this flavorful and meaty fruit and find prunes to be equally at home in a bittersweet chocolate and stout beer bundt cake as they are in a savory Moroccan rice dish with almonds, apricots and dried currants.
Far Breton, a traditional French prune and currant flan, is perfect for a casual dessert or brunch entree and has recently become another sophisticated addition to my prune repertoire.
So it might take a few more years of maturing to find the confidence to enjoy prunes in the open. In the meantime, I'll still be eating them — even if only behind closed doors.
This recipe is adapted from Dorie Greenspan for Bon Appetit. Greenspan is author of several books on French pastry including Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme and Paris Sweets: Great Desserts From the City's Best Pastry Shops.
Makes 8 servings.
2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup small or medium-size pitted prunes
1/3 cup currants
3/4 cup weak warm tea
Soak the prunes and currants in warm weak tea overnight and then drain them. Let them stand at room temperature.
Blend milk, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla and salt in a blender for one minute. Add the flour, pulse until just blended and scrape down the sides of the blender jar. Chill in the jar for at least three hours and no more than one day.
Position rack in the center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of the pan with parchment or waxed paper, butter the paper then dust the pan with flour, shaking out excess.
Blend the batter again until smooth, about 5 seconds. Pour into the prepared cake pan. Drop the prunes and currants evenly into batter. Place cake pan on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour, until sides are browned and puffy and knife inserted into center comes out clean. Cool cake completely in pan on cooling rack. Loosen cake by running a knife around the sides. Invert pan onto a piece of wax or parchment paper, remove the pan and peel off paper round. Place serving plate over cake and invert again. Dust cake with powdered sugar and serve.