Once a year, for only about one week each fall, Italian prune plums, known to me as Zwetschgen, make an appearance in the local produce markets. You have to be ready and watching, because once the limited offering of plums hit the stores, it gets all snapped up. It's always exciting to see the crate of fresh prune plums, partly because my prolonged anticipation is finally fulfilled, partly because I know I didn't lose out to other customers on my 3 pounds-worth, and partly because I know I've got a very good cake coming my way soon.
A very good cake. Rich in memories and lovely in flavor, this cake comes straight from my Opa's recipe files. I remember eating this Zwetschgenkuchen over and over as a little girl on my visits with Opa and Oma in Germany. With a dollop of lightly-sweetened, freshly-whipped cream, and a cup of coffee, this is a quintessential Kaffeetrinken treat.
Kaffeetrinken, one of the important meals in the German day, is enjoyed around 4pm every day. It is a time for an afternoon coffee pick-me-up, and cakes and pastries are generally eaten alongside the coffee. In a baker's family, you can be sure we had many tasty options to choose from! And what I like about most German baked things is that they are not overly sweet, and as a result, they pair excellently with Kaffee.
Since getting this recipe from Opa over a decade ago, I think I've made this cake pretty much every year. Living on different continents, we didn't get to see each other much while he was alive, but I've always loved getting to have a part of him with me through his recipes. And I'm so happy to get to share this one with you!
As I was able to get some of these plums recently, I indulged once again in my yearly tradition. I made a nice big tray of Zwetschgenkuchen, packing some of it up for a picnic with friends in the Santa Barbara Sunken Gardens one sunny weekend, and freezing away the rest to enjoy on another occasion.
The kuchen tasted so good, as it always does. Its base is a very dense cake made of Mürbteig batter that gets covered by a layer of plums and then topped with chunks of streusel (which, by the way, should be pronounced "stroy-sel," not "stroo-sel"). As they bake, the Italian prune plums melt into a slightly sour fruity layer, which is complemented well by the slightly-sweet streusel. It freezes away quite nicely, and though the streusel loses its crunch, the Mürbteig layer actually takes on a somewhat cheese cake-like characteristic.
The classic accompaniment for this is lightly-sweetened whipped cream. And though I'm not a real coffee drinker, I have to say, this is one of the few things in life that screams out "drink a coffee while eating me!"
As a professional baker in Germany, my Opa developed all his recipes in grams and milliliters. I've included both the original measurements here as well as the American conversions.
And as I write this, I'm struck by how fitting a cake this is for Apricosa...a German cake featuring Italian plums. Ah, if a cake could be a metaphor for my life, would this be it?
Zwetschgenkuchen (Italian prune plum cake)
Recipe from Gerhard Sommermann
150g (11 Tbs.) butter, room-temperature
170g (¾ cup plus 2 Tbs.) sugar
Lemon zest from half a lemon
1 egg, room temperature
400g (3 cups sifted) flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
100ml (scant ½ cup) milk, room temperature
3 lbs. Italian prune plums, pitted and cut into sixths
Streusel topping (recipe follows)
Cream butter, sugar, and lemon zest, then add the egg. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt and incorporate into the creamed mixture, along with the milk. Chill dough for at least 30 minutes. (Dough keeps 1 week in the refrigerator.)
Roll dough out on a floured surface and place on the bottom of an ungreased 11x17-inch cake pan (or a round pan of your choice), pressingly slightly at the edges to build up the sides of the cake.
Layer plum pieces to evenly cover the Mürbteig base. Sprinkle streusel over top, and then bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes, depending on the moistness and thickness of your cake and toppings. Serve with plenty of whipped cream that has been sweetened with vanilla and sugar.
100g (1/2 cup) sugar
100g (7 ½ Tbs.) butter
200g (1 ½ cups sifted) flour
pinch of salt
Cream together sugar and butter, then mix in flour and salt. Streusel can be stored in an airtight container, refrigerated, up to one week. Press handfuls of the mixture together to form clumps of streusel before scattering over the cake.