Time is running out.
If you want lovely little sugar plum cakes on your holiday table, you’ll need to preserve the fruit now, while fresh plums are still in season. A few minutes of preparation today will pay off big at Christmas.
The cakes are a delicious nod to tradition, with much of the character of fruit cake but fresher flavor and a slightly crunchy texture from the cornmeal included in the batter. They’re super simple to make. And who can resist the association with the visions of sugar plums in “The Night Before Christmas”–even if the original reference was to a confection made with dried fruit.
The crucial step is to preserve your plums now. At least in Northern California, there are plenty of plums still in the market and you might even find tasty little Italian prune plums at specialty grocers and farmers markets.
I’ve used red Santa Rosa plums here but I’ve also preserved unknown varieties of black plums from a friend’s tree. Once they get a dose of vodka and sugar, they all taste good.
You do want small plums for this DIY project, though, or you won’t be able to cram more than a few into the jar.
Don’t bother pitting the plums. Just rinse them with cold water, stuff them into a jar, cover them with vodka, and add sugar. If the sugar doesn’t dissolve in three days, turn the jar over a few times and let it sit again. What could be easier?
By late December, your potent plums will be ready for baking into holiday cakes.
One note, of caution, though. Don’t use the cheapest vodka on the grocer’s shelf, despite what some people may tell you about all vodkas being the same. I tried using an off-brand once and the flavor was unbearably harsh. Stick with a mid-priced vodka from a brand you recognize.
I found this recipe years ago in “Bread and Chocolate” (1999), the autobiography of San Francisco baker and cookbook author Fran Gage. I baked the cakes in fluted brioche pans, wrapped them, and gave them as presents. They were a huge hit.
More often than not, though, I don’t think about the cakes until fresh plums have long disappeared from the market. This year I’ll be prepared when the craving strikes.
As a bonus, when the plums are all gone, there still will be plenty of fruit-infused vodka left. Plum cosmos anyone?
Makes 1 quart
10-20 plums, depending on size
1 1/2-2 cups vodka
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Wash plums and place in a clean quart jar. Fill jar with vodka and add sugar. Cover tightly and store in a cool, dark place. After three days, if sugar has not dissolved, turn jar over a few times. Repeat every three days until sugar dissolves, then leave jar undisturbed for about three months.
SUGAR PLUM CAKES
Each cake serves 4
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs at room temperature
8 or 9 preserved plums, pitted and coarsely chopped ( 3/4 cup)
2 tablespoons liquid from plums
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter two, 3-cup ring molds or brioche tins.
Whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside. Beat butter with mixer until soft and smooth. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Whisk eggs in a small bowl. With mixer running, add eggs very slowly to butter-sugar mixture, 1/4 at a time, incorporating each addition before introducing the next. Add flour mixture to batter and mix. Stir in plums and plum liquid.
Divide batter between molds, set them on a baking tray and place on middle shelf of oven. Bake until cakes are browned and a skewer inserted comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Cool to lukewarm, then turn cakes out of molds. When completely cool, dust with powdered sugar. Wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, cakes keep 1 week.
From ”Bread and Chocolate,” by Fran Gage