Tuesday, 9th April 2019 – Food/Recipes, London
I have a confession to make. I suffer from an irresistible attraction to German cakes, particularly plum cakes.
It goes back a long way. As a child in the 1960s we initially spent our holidays in the UK, but aged 6 I left the UK for the first time in my at that point very short life. My parents drove me to London from Hull, and handed me over at Heathrow to the BOAC ground staff, who put me on a plane to Hamburg to stay with my my Tante Lottie, my Dad’s only sister. Among many of the things that I discovered on that 6 week stay was cake, apple or plum usually, and delicious. Again, on family camping holidays to Germany, there was always cake. And because my dad was involved it was almost always plum (or zwetschen if you prefer) cake.
Dad’s obsession was probably worse than mine and when he started doing a lot of the cooking in our house after my grandmother, his mother, who lived with us until I was 11, died he began the quest to bake his own. He never did quite get it to the level he was seeking, partly because the plums were “wrong”. The quest for the right plum was even more frustrating than the quest for the right cake recipe. A greengrocers’ shop would display a pile of plums, dark blue of skin, and he’d be most excited, convinced these were the “right” plums. Further investigation would reveal the awful truth though; the flesh was not the yellow of the “proper” plums, but was purple or red or even green. These would not really do, they were not really what he was looking for, but he’d bake anyway, using the cookbook he’d inherited from his mother and which now sits on my shelves. It’s a most imprecise sort of book in many way, which didn’t help. I’ve certainly found that you really can’t believe the cooking times or temperatures, and that made it even harder.
To solve the plum problem, he ended up planting a tree of his own in the back garden, but it proved slow to fruit. Apparently, plum trees are slow to get started, and so year after year he would watch it flower and then fail to set fruit. Dad died in 2007, and the week of his death, the tree finally produced the longed for fruits. It turned out to be a hybrid with a greengage grafted on to one side and both the greengages and the plums were in plentiful supply. Mum and I spent the days between his death and the funeral picking plums and freezing them for future use, or making plum cakes – I baked 7 cakes – and freezing them as well. And like Dad, I too struggle to get the results just right. I’m still trying, though I have at least finally figured out what was wrong with the plums. The right plums aren’t actually plums; they’re damsons. And damsons I have access to because they grow on the parkland next to our house!
And after all that I now find that I have access to a source of good proper Zwetschenkuchen having discovered the German Bakery and their delivery van which appears in London every Tuesday, parking up at Deutsche Bank (among other stops) and selling bread, rolls and cake to the homesick Germans who work in the City (and coincidentally to me as well). And so, every so often, I find myself in possession of a lovely, light piece of plum cake to have with my afternoon coffee, and to remind me of Dad!
I still want to try and crack the conundrum myself though, which means I really need to try this recipe. Please note thought that much as I admire Felicity, whatever she says, the streusel is not optional:
Felicity Cloake’s Perfect German Plum Cake
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.)
For the base
- 200g plain flour
- 3g quick yeast (or 10g fresh)
- 30g sugar
- 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)
- 60g flour
- 45g demerara sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- 50g melted butter, cooled
- 30g almonds, roughly chopped
- Prove 1 hr 20 min +
- Cook 40 min
- 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.
- Using a mixer, combine the flour, yeast, sugar and salt with the milk, egg yolk and cooled melted butter until you have a smooth dough.
- 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 200ºC/390ºF/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.
- Cool the cake, turn out of the tin and serve.