I‘m a an absolute sucker for Italian plums, to the point of being a bit heartbroken that my incredibly generous neighbors’ tree seems not to have fruited this year. Picking them warm off her tree is a highlight of late summer around here. So I was happy as could be when, on vacation, I found a pile of them at a farmer’s market near Lake Chelan, and for just $1 per pound. I bought a big bag, and then was promptly disappointed when the flavor and texture wasn’t up to snuff.
Fortunately, Italian plums tend to work better when cooked than most other varieties I’ve tried. They are small, concentrated, and the pit pops out easily. I knew that if I roasted them, the textural issues would disappear and the flavor would improve. But what to do with the roasted plums? I thought about crepes with sage-roasted plums, yogurt and honey or the zabaglione with roasted plums from my cookbook, but with friends coming over for brunch the next day, an upside-down cake seemed like the perfect thing to serve with coffee and scrambled eggs.
But what to use for the cake base? I looked at lots of recipes for pineapple upside-down cake, both online and in cookbooks, and none of them felt exactly right to me. Then I remembered Clotilde’s ancient yogurt cake (where by ancient I mean 2005) and had a hunch it would fit the bill. Not too sweet, and with a texture that fits the breakfast pastry concept. Good call. I used sour cream instead of yogurt, olive oil instead of vegetable oil, and bourbon instead of rum, all in the service of matching flavors with the Italian plums, but otherwise followed her formula with great results. I suspect using some almond flour in place of part of the all-purpose flour would be fantastic too.
For the caramel that the plums bathe in, I used muscovado sugar, a richly flavored dark brown sugar that I love. If you don’t have it, any dark brown sugar will do. This produced less of a gooey caramel than you might find on a typical upside-down cake, but I rather liked it that way. You could cut into it and pick up a bite without getting too sticky. It was phenomenal dunked in black coffee the next day, too.
Gee, it looks like Martha Rose Shulman and I were on a similar page, including the olive oil! Her version looks terrific too, with some whole wheat in the cake, and pluots put on top instead of the bottom.
Italian Plum Upside Down Cake
Vegetarian and kosher; serves 12 as a breakfast pastry
- 12 Italian plums, halved and pitted
- 5 tablespoons butter plus additional for greasing pan
- 3/4 cup muscovado or other dark brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon slivovitz or bourbon
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Preheat oven to 400 F. Arrange plums, cut side up, on baking sheet. Roast until some juices have run off and the plums are quite tender but retaining their shape, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Butter an 8″ cake pan. If you have a springform pan, use it, and wrap the outside with aluminum foil to prevent leaks.
- In a small saucepan or skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the muscovado sugar and cook for about 3 minutes. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream, sugar, olive oil, vanilla extract, and slivovitz or bourbon.
- In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- Stir the wet ingredients into the dry. Try to get them well mixed, but don’t overwork, as it will cause your cake to be tough.
- Pour the butter and brown sugar mixture into the prepared cake pan and spread around as evenly as possible. Arrange the plums, cut side down, into concentric circles around the bottom of the pan. You can use more than I show in the picture. Distribute the batter over the plums. It is a fairly thick batter, so you’ll need to gently spread it around with a spatula without disturbing the arrangement of the plums.
- Place the cake pan on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 – 40 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack. After about 30 minutes, you can transfer the cake to a serving platter. With a regular cake pan, work a knife around the sides, then place the platter over the top of the cake pan and quickly and confidently invert it and give the bottom a rap to unmold. If you are using a springform pan, you can just unmold it, then invert and remove the bottom to reveal the plums.