Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In between

There has been some confusion in our house, especially among the small people, about what season this is. There's been some denial, some wearing of sandals (with socks stuffed underneath), even on these 50 degree mornings we've been having. It's hard to part with summer, especially the kind of summer that's likely to stand out in childhood and adult memories. So, when does autumn truly arrive–and has it already? Do we officially cross over to the other side once the school doors open? When the blog returns from a long vacation? Or after the balance of daylight and dark shifts, and the calendar says September 23rd? Maybe it happens in the markets, when pumpkins and mums make their entrance, or in the kitchen, when the urge to bake returns and we break out the red wine again.

Maybe it's not so clear-cut at all, and it doesn't have to be. Though the carefree anarchy of summer vacation was hard to say goodbye to, this limbo time is sweet, before the first frost silences the crickets and banishes sundresses under beds for good. The market stalls are overflowing with both summer and fall produce now, so we don’t have to choose between corn and acorn squash just yet, and we can grill and braise to our hearts' content. And we can even pretend, on the weekends at least, that we’re still on vacation: our feet planted firmly in two worlds as we pick apples in t-shirts and sip rosé in front of the season’s first fire.
Better still, the oven is back in action and late-summer stone fruits are very much hanging around, even though the apples are closing in fast. The recipe below is one of my favorite ways to use all the plums–the beautiful dusty-blue prune variety–we've been getting through our CSA. The original version, from the fantastic David Lebovitz, is for a plum-blueberry upside-down cake, which was just the thing in July, but too late now for local blueberries. So I gave it a try with only plums and loved the elegant simplicity that resulted; we were sneaking slivers for breakfast and enjoying wedges for dessert with plum ice cream from the irresistible Belgique Patisserie, in Kent.

Baking this cake warms the house on a chilly morning and fills it with the scents of browning butter and caramelized fruit. The best part about this easy-to-make dessert, which looks like a flat round of nothing through the oven window, is getting to flip it over and reveal the rosy whorl of baked plums beneath. You hold your breath just a little…like mother nature holding hers right before she puts on her flamboyant fall show.
Plum Upside-Down Cake  
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes


  • 3 tablespoons (1 ½ oz.) unsalted butter 
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar  
  • 7-9 plums, halved, pitted, and sliced into ½ inch wedges  (alternatively, combine 6-8 plums with 1 ¼ cups blueberries or other berries)
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder  
  • ¼ teaspoon salt  
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature  
  • ¾ cup sugar  
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract  
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature  
  • ½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. 
  2. To make the topping, put the 3 tablespoons butter in a 9-inch round cake pan or cast iron skillet. Set pan on stove and melt butter over low heat, then stir in brown sugar until it is thoroughly moistened. Spread the sugar mixture evenly over bottom of pan, and let cool for a few minutes.  
  3. Starting in the center and nestling slices close to one another, arrange plums in a pretty pattern of concentric circles, until you reach the outside and cannot see any of the pan's bottom.  
  4. To make the cake, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat together butter and sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add the vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beating until completely incorporated. Mix in half the flour mixture, then add the milk, followed by the rest of the flour, and mix until just combined.  
  5. Scrape the batter on top of the plums in the pan, and spread it evenly over them. Put pan in the oven and bake until the cake is golden brown and passes the toothpick test–about 50 minutes to an hour. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Run a knife around the side of the pan, then cover pan with a large plate. Using oven mitts and keeping plate and pan firmly together, carefully flip the whole thing over. Lift pan off of plate in one smooth, confident motion.
Serving: Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream. If serving later, re-warm cake in foil, in a low oven.  
Storage: Store at room temperature for up to 2 days, using the baking pan as a lid over the cake.