Early September is a poignant time. You can feel the chill in the mornings and evenings, as your thoughts start to turn from lazy summer weekends to the brisk autumn routines of school and work.
But this melancholy shift has its own consolations, one of the most delicious being plums. This versatile fruit starts to come into its own as we head into fall, adding tart, sweet taste and gorgeous crimson colour to a range of desserts.
This year, instead of getting all self-pitying about the end of summer, I decided to look ahead. Marking this transitional season with some baking, I started with a simple but rich plum cake and a plum cobbler with a cornmeal topping.
I also made plum butter, which has absolutely nothing to do with butter, but is a spread made from fruit, with sugar and a hint of flavouring, cooked right down to its essence. This process traditionally involves a lot of watching and stirring, stirring and watching, but a slow cooker lets you get that long, leisurely cooking time without worrying about scorching.
I used Italian prune plums for the cake and cobbler. These small, deep-purple plums have less juice than other varieties, so they're not standout eating plums. They are ideal for baking, however. They hold their shape well, their tart-sweet flavour deepens and intensifies in the heat, and their green-gold inner flesh turns ruby-red.
When buying plums for baking, look for fruit that is a little soft to the touch but not smooshy. The skin should be smooth, without punctures, wrinkles or patches of brown discolouration. Most mature plums also have a lovely white blush, which is a naturally occurring wax bloom.
For me, September always seems to come suddenly, before I'm quite ready. Still, a few pounds of plums helped make the transition easier -- and tastier.
250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
125 ml (115 g or 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
250 ml (1 cup) granulated sugar, plus 15-30 ml (1-2 tbsp) for sprinkling
5 ml (1 tsp) lemon zest
12-15 Italian prune plums, pitted and halved (about 400 g or 14 oz)
10 ml (2 tsp) lemon juice
5 ml (1 tsp) cardamom
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F). In small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In large bowl using an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, beating after each addition, then lemon zest. Add dry ingredients, stirring in with a spoon or spatula until just combined. (Batter will be thick and sticky.) Spoon batter into an ungreased 23-cm (9-inch) springform pan and spread and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, all over the batter, to cover. Sprinkle with lemon juice, then cardamom, then remaining sugar. Bake until cake is golden, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack, then cut around the cake and remove springform sides. Serve slightly warm, or cool completely, wrap well, store at room temperature, and serve the next day.
Tester's notes: This is a rustic cake, with a modest simplicity that really lets the flavour of the plums come through. It's an adaptation of a New York Times recipe that was so popular it had to be reprinted every August until the food editors told readers just to laminate the thing and be done with it. Most variations of this cake use cinnamon -- a typo one year in the NYT recipe means that some bakers prefer 1 teaspoon while others passionately advocate for 1 tablespoon -- but I prefer just a bit of cardamom, which adds an indefinably wonderful flavour.
This is one of those fortunate cakes that tastes even better the next day (and it's always nice to have one of those in your back pocket). But don't let it sit much longer or it will become soggy.
Plum and Cornmeal Cobbler
1.5 kg (3 1/3 lbs) plums, stoned (about 2 l or 8 cups chopped)
125 ml (1/2 cup) light brown sugar
10 ml (2 tsp) cornstarch
5 ml (1 tsp) cinnamon
30 ml (2 tbsp) lemon juice
30 ml (2 tbsp) butter
375 ml (11/2 cups) all-purpose flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) cornmeal
60 ml (1/4 cup) granulated sugar, plus about 30 ml (2 tbsp) for sprinkling
10 ml (2 tsp) baking powder
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
125 ml (1/2 cup) butter, chilled and diced
250 ml (1 cup) buttermilk
Preheat oven to 190 C (375 F). Cut the stoned plums into halves (if small) or quarters (if large). In large bowl, toss the plums with the brown sugar and leave for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the plums, reserving the juice. Place drained fruit in a 23 x 33 cm (9 x 13 inch) glass baking dish. Whisk cornstarch into the reserved plum juice, add cinnamon and lemon juice and pour over the fruit. Dot with butter. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until fruit is slightly softened.
Meanwhile, make the topping: In large bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter, with a pastry cutter or working quickly with your hands, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Using a fork, stir in buttermilk just until mixture is combined. (Do not overwork.) Divide into 8 small flattened rounds and arrange on top of the plums. Sprinkle the cornmeal rounds with the 30 ml (2 tbsp) sugar and bake for 30-40 minutes until topping is golden and risen and fruit is bubbling. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Tester's notes: This dessert is not too sweet and the cornmeal adds a nice crunch to the usual cobbler topping. You can serve with whipped cream or ice cream or just as is.
Slow-Cooker Plum Butter
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, or 1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
2 kg (about 4 1/2 lb) ripe plums, stoned but not peeled, then halved or quartered
750 ml (3 cups) granulated sugar (or less, depending on sweetness of fruit)
60 ml (1/4 cup) lemon juice
Into the pot of a slow cooker, scrape seeds from vanilla bean. (If using vanilla extract, wait and add at the end of cooking time.) Add plums, sugar and lemon juice. Cover and cook on low overnight or for about 8-12 hours, stirring occasionally, then increase setting to high and cook, with the lid slightly ajar so liquid can evaporate, for about 3-4 hours. (See note.) Finished plum butter should be reduced by about half from its original volume and should be a thick, spreadable consistency. You can process for canning (consult a canning cookbook or website such as www.bernardin.ca for detailed instructions on safe canning techniques) or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.
Tester's notes: Cooking times can vary -- a lot -- because they depend on the variety of plum, the ripeness of the fruit and the type of slow cooker. If your plum butter doesn't seem to be cooking down, you can finish it on the stovetop in an uncovered heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Just make sure to stir frequently to prevent scorching.
Some plum butter recipes suggest puréeing the plums with a food mill or an immersion blender in the early stages, but the skins and pulp really break down during the long cooking process, and I actually like a little texture.
Fruit butters are delicious spread on toast, and also make good fillings for turnovers or hand-pies.