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Show Off Plums in Two Summer Desserts

How to make the most of summer’s plums? We asked two pastry chefs for their inspiration

Fine Cooking Issue 46
Photos, except where noted: Amy Albert
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When summer’s in full swing, one of the most seductive sights at farmers’ markets and produce stands is plums. From flame red to ruby to deep purple, fragrant, juicy and ripe…how can you resist? You buy a basketload, and they’re great for eating straightaway—but what else can you do with all these plums?

We invited two of our favorite pastry chefs—Karen Barker from Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, and Claudia Fleming from Gramercy Tavern in New York City—to try our “Market Basket Challenge” and asked them each to improvise a plum dessert using a limited number of ingredients and following the game rules at right. Here’s what each chef came up with, along with the technique and reasoning behind her inspiration.

Scott Phillips

Rules of the game

Karen and Claudia started with any type of plum they wanted, in any amount. They were allowed to use unlimited ingredients from a basic bakers’ pantry and to choose up to three wildcard ingredients.

Market ingredient: Fresh plums (any type, any amount).

Basic baker’s pantry: Baking powder, baking soda, butter, canola oil, eggs, flour (all-purpose, cake, and pastry), heavy cream, lemon juice, milk, olive oil, pepper, salt, sugar (white, brown, and confectioners’), vanilla extract, water.

Wildcards: Any condiment, flavoring, fruit, herb, nut, spice, or starch.

Karen Barker turns plums upside down

When I see plums at the market, I think of old-­fashioned sorts of desserts like upside-down cake, which is the perfect showcase for plums for a couple of reasons. The plum juices get absorbed by the cake, and they moisten the brown sugar for a topping that’s the right degree of gooey. I love the contrast of sweet cake and tart fruit, as well as the contrast of brightly colored skins and pale cake. Because I like the look of individual desserts, I decided to bake the cakes in individual one-cup ramekins, rather than baking one big cake.

For this particular recipe for Plum Upside-Down Cakes, I try to find smaller plums if possible, so I can get slices that are small enough to arrange in a circle in the bottom of the ramekins. Red Casselmans or Santa Rosas give you distinct color contrast (I leave their red skins on), but any ripe, firm plum will do. If you can’t find small plums, just use fewer slices.

Rather than a traditional caramel, I use a brown sugar and butter mixture to line the ramekins, which creates the topping for the upside-down cake. Brown sugar’s toasty notes are especially good against a plum’s tartness. To give the cake a bit of tang as well as a tender crumb, I soured regular milk with some lemon juice (buttermilk is traditionally used, but I don’t always keep it on hand).

I chose cinnamon and orange zest as my wildcard ingredients because they accentuate the plums’ flavor without overpowering it. I opted not to use a third wildcard because the cake doesn’t need it, but you could always spike some whipped cream with Grand Marnier to serve on top.

These upside-down cakes can be baked several hours ahead of time and reheated for about two minutes at 350°F before serving. This makes it a cinch to turn the cakes out of their ramekins, and it restores their soft texture. Because plums are really juicy, I suggest baking and reheating the cakes on a rimmed baking sheet in case the juices bubble over.

Upside-down cakes take full advantage of a plum’s juiciness. Juices help make a gooey topping that the cake in turn sponges up; vanilla ice cream is the perfect complement.

Claudia Fleming bakes a crusty spiced cobbler

Plums are a late-summer fruit with a richness that begs for full, spicy seasoning. When I’m at the farmers’ market and feel the air start to change in that late-summer way, warm, rich flavors start to tempt me again.

I chose Italian plums for my market ingredient: I love Italian plums for cooking because they don’t fall apart the way juicier ones usually do (although juicier plums are delicious for eating out of hand).

A plum’s sweet, tart flavor is bolder than that of berries or peaches, so I chose cardamom and cinnamon as two of my wildcard ingredients to season my cobbler. Their warmth matches the plums’ rich flavor—and rich color. I keep the skins on the plums, rather than peeling them, which creates an irresistible purply-red jam that bubbles around the topping as the cobbler cooks.

And speaking of those juices, managing them is a main concern when you’re working with any type of plum. Because the fruit (if it’s truly ripe) contains so much water, a pie just isn’t a good idea: the crust will get wet and soggy, and you’ll miss the delicious textural contrast of crisp crust and soft, cooked fruit that’s the whole point of a pie.

A cobbler is a great destination for juicy plums: you can have your crust and it won’t be soggy. The biscuit topping absorbs juices, but you’ll still get all that buttery flakiness. My third wildcard ingredient, turbinado sugar, adds a lovely sparkle to the biscuit topping (it’s light amber and coarser than regular) but regular sugar is fine, too.

I like to serve this Italian Plum Cobbler with cinnamon-cardamom ice cream, but topping it with crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream is just as good.

A cobbler showcases plums brilliantly, too, with appetizing deep-purple juices and a top that’s good and crusty.

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