A classic cake moves west for its sun-kissed makeover
For the last 12 years that I lived in New York, smells of cinnamon-tinged, buttery cake filling the air after Labor Day meant one thing: Italian prune plum season was upon us. That season, much like those for ramps in late spring, begins a monthlong scramble when everyone seems to be rushing to the markets to buy the blushing, tart fruits. Some might make them into jam, but most are making Marian Burros’ famous plum torte, which was originally published in the New York Times in 1983 and has been, more or less, every September since.
In my first autumn in Los Angeles, I wanted to relive that same baking thrill but with less East Coast freneticism. The seasons are subtler and drag on a little longer in California; people sustain excitement for seasonal produce over months, not a few precious weeks. And while we do get Italian prune plums here at the same time as in New York, because of the breadth of wonderful produce available here all year long, the plum’s appearance is more akin to the excitement you feel when looking at the seventh gorgeous model come down the runway, as opposed to when Naomi Campbell makes a surprise cameo at the end.
For my spin on Burros’ classic cake, I wanted to use my favorite fruit, which has a decidedly more West Coast feel than any other: persimmons. Yes, you can get them all across the country (I grew up eating them in the South), but the sight of them signals “fall in California” to me more than any other, especially in late October and November when I see their dried versions, called hoshigaki, in markets here and in San Francisco.
To my delight, both varieties of persimmons — the squat, tomato-like Fuyu and the bell-shaped Hachiya — make a great one-for-one swap with the plums. One caveat: while persimmons, especially the Hachiya variety, need to be water-balloon-ripe to be sweet and delicious, you want fruits that are ripe but still a little firm, like a stress ball. Otherwise, they’ll dissolve in the batter and not maintain their shape.
I don’t mess with Burros’ cake batter too much. I take the sugar down a smidge and increase the lemon juice a tad to balance the more overtly sweet persimmons. I also add a few spices — some turmeric and ginger — to boost the lightly vegetal-sweet flavor of persimmons without overwhelming their delicate aroma. The turmeric adds a gorgeous golden-light color to the batter too, hinting that a little West Coast sunshine looks good on everything, even a Yankee fruit cake.
California Persimmon Torte
1 hour 10 minutes. Serves 8 to 12.
Marian Burros’ plum torte is often the first recipe most bakers use, because it’s easy to make, looks great and has stood the test of time. This California spin on it swaps the Italian plums for ripe, fragrant persimmons, which peak in late autumn. Because persimmons can be less acidic than plums, I lower the amount of sugar here slightly from Burros’ original and add a little more lemon juice. Ground turmeric and ginger support the unique flavor of persimmons and add great color without overwhelming the fruit with their own distinct qualities. Avoid using persimmons that are overly ripe. They may be great for eating raw in this state, but in this recipe, they will dissolve into the batter.
- ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ⅔ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 to 3 ripe-but-firm Fuyu or Hachiya persimmons, cut into 6 to 8 wedges each, depending on the size
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch cake or springform pan with butter and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, ginger and turmeric. In a large bowl, combine the butter and 2/3 cup sugar and beat on medium-low speed of a mixer until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate each fully before adding the next, then beat in the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and stir with a rubber spatula until the batter just comes together.
- Spread the batter in an even layer in the prepared pan. In a medium bowl, toss the persimmon wedges with the lemon juice until completely coated. Starting from the outside, arrange the persimmon wedges skin side up in a circle at the edge of the batter then work your way toward the center (you may have one or two wedges left over). If there is any lemon juice left in the bowl, pour it over the fruit. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar evenly over the top of the batter and fruit.
- Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake (trying to avoid touching the fruit) comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and let cool completely before unmolding.
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