Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Back for Seconds: Prune Plums Take 2

The desperation sets in every year, in the end of the summer when nectarines and plums are making their last appearances in markets. Their perfumes follow me around the produce section; once brought home, they sit in their fruit bowls, ripening further. I catch a whiff as I pass by, and a vase of late roses Pavel picked drop their petals onto the fruit, adding their scents. (Fruit flies start to gather as well, but that's just not as pretty a picture).

But even while I'm hoarding these last stone fruits (I've been known to hide a particularly perfect nectarine away in my bookshelf, waiting for it to reach perfection), I always make room for their neglected cousins: the blue prune plums.  Thinking back on those trips to my grandparents ranch, I realize that even then I appreciated the prunes' yearly return. I liked--and still do--things coming back around; it's comforting.

If you end up with a bag of prune plums left on your porch by friends (as I was lucky enough to this year!), you could make jam.  Or just cut them in half, remove the pits, and stick them in your freezer.  Then you can make jam whenever you like.

I like to put some frozen prunes in a baking dish when I get up in the morning, drizzle them with a little honey, and bake them for about 20 minutes at 375˚.  Cooking transforms them, their yellow centers deepening along with their flavor.  The finished dish, with the rosy colored syrupy juices, purple-black skins, and golden flesh offers a cheery start to a fall or winter morning.  And they taste wonderful, with or without yogurt.

I was lucky--besides receiving a prune delivery at home, I gathered some this year (as I have in the past) at a friend's weekend house near Mt. Adams.

View Prune Plums in a larger map
But if you aren't lucky enough to find those plums on sagging trees in a friend's yard, at the market, or even on trees in (hopefully) abandoned lots, perhaps you're lucky enough to live somewhere with an urban fruit group? Here in Portland we have the Portland Fruit Tree Project, which helps people share their harvest (which might otherwise go to waste) with people who need and can use the fruit.  At the Urban Edibles website you can browse by location or category, and track down anything from apples to walnuts. One probably should click on their 'ethics' link; the organization does assume people will be responsible about gathering fruit in town.

However they arrive, when the first prune plums show up, I always do the same thing. Bake a prune kuchen.  We have it a couple of times each year, and I hope its yearly appearance gives my kids the kind of comfort and reassurance that wandering my grandparents' orchards gave me.

The recipe I use comes from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book.  It's the kind of cake you can throw together on a weekday on a whim.  The butter is melted (no need to plan ahead and pull a cube from the freezer), and the dry ingredients are tossed together, then combined in the butter pan.  Halved prunes are laid on the top and covered with a generous spoonful (okay, 2 or 3 soup spoonfuls) of cinnamon sugar . It's a quick and satisfying cake. Bonus:any leftover cake will make a nice breakfast with a cup of tea or coffee!

Fresh Prune Kuchen
from Marion Cunningham's The Fannie Farmer Baking Book

12-15 fresh prunes
3/4 cup sugar, divided (1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400˚.  Grease and flour an 8-inch square cake pan.  Mix the 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon, and set aside.  Cut the prunes in half, and set aside.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then remove from heat.  I often slightly warm the milk at this point, so the butter doesn't seize when combining--just to body temperature.  Then mix the egg with the milk, and add to the melted butter.

In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and the 1/2 cup sugar.  Add to the butter/milk/egg mixture and beat until the batter is smooth.  Pour into prepared pan.

Arrange the cut prunes, skin side down, on the batter.  Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar mix over the prunes--it will seem like a lot, but go with it!

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted between the prune halves and into the cake comes out clean.  Remove from oven, and cool on a rack.  This cake is best served warm--possibly with ice cream or whipped cream. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back for Seconds: Prune Plums

When I was a kid, my grandparents lived on a ranch in Sonoma County, just outside Healdsburg, California. We used to go up for weekend visits, or, in summertime, for longer visits. It was great fun for a kid. Sometimes we'd spend a whole day at the Russian River (it bordered their ranch, and we had our favorite swimming spot). My grandmother, Nanna, along with whatever aunts were visiting, would take us down for a morning of swimming. Nanna called us out of the water for lunch and a pop, and then made us sit there for an hour, digesting. Remember that? Not being able to swim for an hour after eating, lest deadly cramps set it, rendering you immobile, and sure to drown? After a drowsy hour sitting (we could barely walk around, the sand burned our feet), she finally let us back in.

View Prune Plums in a larger map

I loved late summer there--the smell of hot red dust hung in the air, along with an acrid smell my sister has since told me comes from the mule fat that grows by the Russian River (it has nothing to do with rendering the fat from the son of a donkey and a horse). And the prunes were starting to ripen.

If you've read my story, 'Please Bring Back Prune Danishes', you probably know how I feel about prunes. I love them. I also love their look. Maybe you've noticed the prunes in my blog's header?

A lot of that has to do with my grandfather, and the prunes he grew and dried on his ranch. But while I mentioned in that story how much I loved eating the warm ones he handed me from the drying racks, I didn't really explain how much I loved those plums before they dried.

Dusty red hills and dusty looking blue plums. I liked to wander among the trees, picking unripe prunes from the trees, or plucking them from the ground (I called them 'prune plums'--I don't know if anyone else called them that). I liked them all ways: ripe with their centers amber, or crisp and sour--still green inside.

If you rubbed those plums, they started to shine, and the blue deepened nearly to black. They weren't as fragrant as the red Santa Rosas, and they were more meaty than juicy. But they were perfect for a kid. For one thing, even when ripe, they were wonderfully portable--a couple of them could safely travel in your pocket back to the house (if you could hold out that long). And when sour? Well, maybe you remember how much kids like sour fruit. A line ran down one side, letting you split it into neat halves. And you could count on them. They might not have been rapturous, but they were never mealy or flavorless.

They are workhorse plums.
Come back Wednesday to see what I'm doing for seconds!

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Coming Soon: Back for Seconds

I've been remiss. Maybe you've noticed (I hope so!) that I haven't posted much lately. I could make excuses; after all, my youngest just left for a year outside Naples, and there was a lot of preparation necessary. But then I remember all those women who have more children, younger children, homeschooled children AND full time jobs, AND beautiful blogs.

So I've decided not to make excuses. I just value downtime more than some people.

But I'm planning on making it up to you.

Next week I'll be starting a series here, 'Back for Seconds'. Every Monday (OK, nearly every Monday) I'll post the first of a two-part piece. The first part is about a food from my past. It might be an ingredient, or a food I ate long ago and far away. The food may be exotic or run-of-the-mill, but either way, it meant something to me, and I want to revisit.

The second part of the post will show up Tuesday or Wednesday. This will be the 'now' answer to Monday's 'then'. Monday I'll go back for seconds, in my memory; Tuesday I'll go back for real seconds. The real seconds might be a recipe. Or it might be a visit to a restaurant or market. Or perhaps my freezer.

We'll see where it takes us.
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