For a spot with such beautiful plums (complaints to the editor, please), we now have a critical dearth of recipes for the wonderful annual glut. Crumble, jam and pie nearly covers it, so far as I can inform (although all corrections welcome), none of which, scrumptious as they’re, come near the nationwide establishment that’s the German plum cake, variously often called zwetschgendatschi, zwetschgenkuchen, quetschekuche or pflaumenkuchen, relying on the place you’re within the nation. I’m going to stay with “plum cake” – although, actually, bread or a tart can be a extra correct description of a dish that appears to have charmed everybody who’s ever set foot in Germany in late summer time. Indeed, my mum nonetheless waxes lyrical in regards to the zwetschgenkuchen made by the grandmother of the household she stayed with whereas finding out in Frankfurt greater than 1/2 a century in the past. You hardly ever see them in British bakeries, so in case you’ve by no means tried 1, you’re in for a deal with.
Many of the recipes are very particular about the kind of plum for use: Anja Dunk writes in Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings that “zwetschgen are small, dark-as-night plums with a vibrant yellow flesh, both tart and sweet in flavour. They are brilliant for baking because they don’t hold as much water as Victoria and other red plum varieties.” Noting the difficulties in getting maintain of them right here, she ideas “the little deep-purple Italian plums or plum varieties such as Herman, Czar and Edwards” as the most effective substitute.
Luisa Weiss, writer of the weblog The Wednesday Chef, additionally requires “Italian prune plums” within the recipe in her first ebook, My Berlin Kitchen – these are oval, relatively than spherical, with darkish, cloudy skins, and I discovered them comparatively simply in a greengrocers, though a farmer’s market would in all probability have them in peak season, too. Ripe and juicy, they show onerous to stone, however keep satisfyingly plump within the oven, as do the victoria plums really useful within the Konditor and Cook ebook as “paler and a bit sharper” than the normal German selection.
Much as I like all of the tarts I make, nonetheless, the victorias style blandly candy as compared with among the different plums, and are distinctly moist: oddly sufficient, among the hottest fruit proves to the be the relatively underripe imported crimson plums I attempt in Diana Henry’s recipe in Roast Figs Sugar Snow on the basis that there’s a picture of something similar at the side of the recipe. Their sour flavour makes a lovely contrast to her sweet pastry: proof that you can achieve success even with the most unpromising fruit.
Gersine Bullock-Prado, an American pastry chef with fond memories of her German mother’s zwetschgendatschi, recommends damsons, which are also drier than standard round plums, though much sourer than zwetschgen. At the time of writing – mid-July – I’m unable to find any to try out, but I suspect they’d work very well indeed in the recipe below with a little extra sugar on top.
In short, although smallish, dark plums are ideal in terms of flavour and water content, you can use just about anything here, from sour bullets to overripe to the point of jam. Which makes this a very versatile recipe indeed.
More important, I think, is how you prepare them. Cut the pieces too small, and they’ll disappear into the base. Unless they’re real whoppers, halves should be fine, with a little nick in the skin, as Bullock-Prado recommends – “Why? Because that’s how my mother and Omi did it.” And I suspect they did it to stop the skins sliding off in the oven. (I forgot to do this in the perfect version: if you do, too, fret not; it will still taste just as delicious, and streusel hides a multitude of sins.)
Although a quick Twitter poll suggests there seems to be some regional variation, as far as I can tell, yeasted dough and shortcrust pastries are fairly equally popular in Germany, though in the Saarland, “quetschekuche must be on dough”, while another correspondent informs me that “down here (Franconia) we usually have the pastry-based ones with streusel” and someone else suggests that, in Munich at least, shortcrust versions give way to the heartier, breadier kind as summer becomes autumn. I even learn that, in the south-west of the country, and perhaps elsewhere, zwetschgenkuchen can be a savoury bread served with soup.
None of which helps with our dilemma. If fluffy doughs and crisp pastry are both excellent vehicles for baked plums, how are we supposed to choose between the two? The dough has the advantage of being a better vehicle for plum juice (I’d recommend eating Henry’s and Bullock-Prado’s tarts as soon as they’re cool enough to cram into your mouth, before sog sets in), and also for being slightly more unusual, though the pastry does double up as a streusel-type topping if required (of which more later). In the end, I decide to take an executive decision, mostly to stop people helping themselves to yet another slice, “just to remind myself what we’re talking about”, and go with the dough, simply because it’s so definitively German. A plum tart could come from any number of places, but a plum bread feels special.
The dough itself seems fairly standard: moderately sweet, enriched with egg and butter, although testers prefer the softer texture of those made with plain flour and egg yolks to the sturdier bun dough of the Konditor and Cook recipe with its strong bread flour and whole egg. Weiss’s slightly wetter, lighter base is more popular than the one from Alfons Schuhbeck’s forthcoming German Cookbook, although I suspect that the difference might also come from the fact that she bakes hers in a cake tin, giving a deeper base that’s better protected from the heat of the oven, as opposed to the big tray bakes favoured by German bakeries, and the other two recipes. If you’re feeding a crowd, I’d recommend the Schuhbeck version, but for tea (or perhaps coffee) at home, Weiss’s works better.
I’m also going to keep that dough quite plain: the fruit will have enough flavour not to need any extra help, much as I like the idea of Schuhbeck’s amaretto and vanilla, and Weiss’s lemon zest, such fripperies can be saved for the top.
Schuhbeck lines his dough with cake crumbs, Dunk with semolina and my mum reckons her landlady used to use breadcrumbs – all to soak up the crimson juices of the ripe plums as they split in the oven. This strikes me as a very good idea: a certain amount of damp squidge is desirable, but sogginess certainly isn’t. Spare cake is not something I have lying around, however, and semolina, though easier to resist, isn’t half as nice with plums as ground almonds, so I decide to give them a whirl instead, and find they work admirably. If you’d prefer to keep it nut-free, use one of the other options instead.
To streusel, or not to streusel
The eternal question. Clearly a soft rich dough and jammy baked plums needs little in the way of adornment: Bullock-Prado demands nothing but “one tablespoon raw sugar (or one packet you’ve pilfered from Starbucks)”, and Weiss goes only slightly fancier with melted butter and cinnamon sugar. Henry paints hers with glossy redcurrant jelly, but Konditor and Cook and Schuhbeck both go the whole hog with a gloriously buttery streusel topping that, once tasted, is impossible to reject. If you’d prefer to keep it plain, then a couple of tablespoons of cinnamon sugar and some flaked almonds will be almost as nice. Just not quite.
As for accompaniment, I’ll let Weiss have the last word: “Whipped cream [is] non-negotiable!”
Perfect German plum cake
Prep 20 min
Prove 1 hr 20 min +
Cook 40 min
200g plain flour
3g quick yeast (or 10g fresh)
¼ tsp salt
120ml lukewarm milk
1 egg yolk
40g butter, melted and left to cool, plus extra to grease
600g ripe plums, preferably a dark oval variety (damsons will need more sugar on top)
30g ground almonds, breadcrumbs or semolina
4 tbsp demerara sugar
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
For the streusel topping (optional)
45g demerara sugar
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon
50g melted butter, cooled
30g almonds, roughly chopped
Grease a 22cm or thereabouts loose-bottomed cake tin with butter.
To make the dough, put the flour in a mixer with the yeast (if using fresh yeast, you’ll need to activate it in the warm milk first), sugar and salt, and mix together. Add the milk, egg yolk and cooled butter, and mix until you have a smooth dough; it will be quite soft, so if you knead it by hand instead, try not to add any more flour than you have to to stop it sticking. Put the dough in the greased tin, cover lightly and leave until it’s roughly doubled in size – about an hour, although it may take longer.
Carefully cut the plums in half along the seam and remove the stones. Make a small –1cm – cut in the end of each plum half. Punch down the dough and flatten it to fill the tin. Spread with ground almonds, then arrange the plums skin side up to fill the tin, packing them in closely. Mix the demerara sugar, zest and cinnamon, sprinkle on top and set aside in a warm place for 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas 6. Mix the first four ingredients for the streusel together, then stir in first the melted butter and then the nuts, to make a soft, crumble-like mixture. Refrigerate until the dough is ready to bake, then sprinkle over the top.
Bake the cake for about 40 minutes until golden, then leave to cool to warm before turning out of the tin and serving with whipped cream.
• Pflaumenkuchen, zwetschgendatschi or quetschekuche – whatever you call it, are you in camp dough or team shortcrust? Which local plums make the best substitute for the traditional zwetschgen? And do you ever serve it with anything other than whipped cream?
Felicity Cloake from theguardian.com