It's The Time Of Year To Go Plum Crazy

Italian prune plums i i
Gayle Krughoff for NPR
Italian prune plums
Gayle Krughoff for NPR

About The Author

Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She also hosts the Kitchen Window podcast. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, is out in stores. You can find more information at bonnywolf.com.

Growing up, I knew it was fall when the house smelled like warm cinnamon. Just as summer ended, my mother began baking multiple pans of Aunt Fanny's plum kuchen. She used odd-looking fruit she called Italian prune plums. Some tarts she served directly from the oven; many she froze. Then, as suddenly as it started, the baking frenzy was over. The plum tart season is short.

I grew up, left home and forgot about the fragrant coffee cake until I was marketing one day in the very early fall and saw Italian prune plums in the produce section. That week, food writer Marion Burros printed a recipe in The New York Times for a plum torte. It was so popular, she ran the recipe every year until 1995. It called for Italian prune plums.

My childhood came flooding back, and I rummaged through my recipes until I found, in my mom's handwriting, Aunt Fanny's kuchen. My mother's recipe was made in a jelly-roll pan, while Burros' was in a springform pan. Otherwise, the recipes were almost exact replicas. Burros got the recipe just after she was married and, since we're both women of a certain age, it was probably a common recipe of a certain time. It's a homey, non-fussy, easy recipe, perfect for a busy world.

I followed Burros' use of the smaller pan, made a few adjustments to my mother's recipe (less butter, less sugar) and began what became an annual tart-baking binge. These tarts are so easy to make and freeze so well that you can make a lot of them in the brief time the plums are available. This is worth doing.

Italian prune plums appear with the first yellow leaves on the trees and are gone when the pumpkins are overflowing their patches — so you have to act fast. Look for them at farmers markets, supermarkets, warehouse stores and specialty stores. They're not always easy to find.

The purple-black, egg-sized Italian prune plums are far easier to cook with than their summer cousins. Most plums are clingstone, meaning it's difficult to separate the flesh from the pit. It clings. Italian prune plums, however, are freestone and easy to pit.

Because they're firmer than other plums, Italian prune plums keep their shape in tarts, pies and cakes. They are also less juicy than other plums, so they produce less liquid and more intense flavor. These properties have made them baking favorites.

Then there's the color. The yellow flesh of the raw plum turns a gorgeous fuchsia when cooked. I made a sorbet that turned a deep, rich burgundy color.

These are the plums that star in Czech plum dumplings, Italian plum cake, French clafouti, jams of all nationalities, crisps and compotes.

While they lend themselves perfectly to desserts, Italian prune plums also are good in savory dishes. I've made a sweet-and-sour plum sauce for pork or veal chops. A few diced plums make a bowl of quinoa stand out.

They're also good to eat just out of the fruit bowl. I like their slight tartness.

When buying Italian plums, look for fruit that is firm but not hard. Avoid plums that are too soft, or that have wrinkled or rough skin, or brown spots. They will have a light coating that looks like chalk dust. That's a good thing.

Keep in mind that the time for Italian prune plums is short. Already, the season is almost over.

If you get some plums and start baking, though, you can have a freezer full of tarts to turn to on a cold winter day.

Chops With Plum Sauce

Chops With Plum Sauce i i
Gayle Krughoff for NPR
Chops With Plum Sauce
Gayle Krughoff for NPR

I have made this with pork chops and veal chops and think it would be good with lamb chops, too. These cuts go particularly well with a sweet-and-sour sauce made with plums. It looks like fall.

Makes 6 servings

6 pork chops, veal chops or lamb chops (bone-in)

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and grated

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder*

1 pound Italian prune plums, pitted and quartered

Season chops with salt and pepper.

In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Brown chops on each side. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add garlic and ginger to the skillet and saute quickly, stirring constantly, until garlic is browned but not burned. Stir in vinegar, honey, soy sauce and five-spice powder and bring to a simmer.

Add pork chops and plums to skillet. Return to simmer, cover and cook over medium-low heat until meat is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Turn chops halfway through cooking, so both sides absorb the sauce.

Remove chops from pan and place on a platter. Spoon plums and sauce over meat.

*Five-spice powder is available at Asian markets and in many supermarket spice sections.

Quinoa With Plums And Lemon

Quinoa's earthy flavor goes nicely with simply grilled meats. The plums give it a pretty purple stain and, with the lemon, a fresh, tart taste. Add a few diced uncooked plums for some crunch.

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 cups quinoa

3 cups chicken broth

6 Italian prune plums, pitted and diced (plus 2 more if you want to add them uncooked before serving)

Zest of 1 small lemon

3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Rinse quinoa under cold water and drain well. Place in pot with chicken broth and plums.

Bring to simmer, cover and cook until all of the liquid has been absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon zest and juice.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

Plum Tart

Plum Tart i i
Gayle Krughoff for NPR
Plum Tart
Gayle Krughoff for NPR

This is an adaptation of my mother's recipe for Aunt Fanny's kuchen. This tart freezes well. Defrost frozen tarts and reheat in 300-degree oven.

Makes 1 9-inch tart, 6 to 8 servings

3/4 cup sugar (or less, to taste)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour, sifted

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 large eggs

12 to 14 Italian prune plums, pitted and cut in half

Cinnamon sugar, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream sugar and butter in an electric mixer. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the plums) and mix well.

Spoon the batter into an ungreased, 9-inch springform pan, spreading to cover the bottom of the pan. Place plums, skin side up, in concentric circles to cover the batter. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake until nicely browned on top, about 1 hour.

Plum Sorbet

Plum Sorbet i i
Gayle Krughoff for NPR
Plum Sorbet
Gayle Krughoff for NPR

This easy sorbet is a gorgeous burgundy color. It's a refreshing way to end a meal. It's a little tart, so add more sugar if you like it sweeter.

Makes 5 to 6 cups

2 pounds Italian prune plums, pitted and halved.

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon plum brandy

In large saucepan, mix plums and brown sugar and cook over medium heat until plums throw off their juices, 5 to 10 minutes. Simmer for another 5 minutes. The fragrant mixture should be the consistency of syrup.

Remove from stove and cool for 10 to 15 minutes.

Add plum brandy and lemon juice, and place mixture in food processor. Puree until smooth.

Put mixture in a glass pie plate and freeze until hard, 3 to 4 hours.

Remove from freezer and transfer to food processor. Process until smooth, then serve or put in a container and back in the freezer until ready to use.

Honeyed Plums With Cheese

This is a quick and simple dessert that is pretty and delicious.

Makes 6 servings

1 cup fresh goat cheese

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup honey

12 Italian prune plums, pitted and quartered

1 cup walnut pieces

Mix cheese and yogurt well, adding 2 tablespoons honey. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mix plums and walnuts in a bowl. Heat remaining honey in a saucepan until it becomes thin, and pour over fruit.

To serve, spoon cheese onto each of 6 plates and top with honeyed fruit.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.