“There is a charm about the forbidden
that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
― Mark Twain
On the summer-warmed, gray-black asphalt this thing had mutated into a living organism; like an alien life form it oozed, crept and slid towards the sidewalk. It tantalized and mocked; the smell: sun-baked tar and dust mingled with the sweet-sour aroma of yeast, sugar, flour and ripe, dark plums, rose in the air.
“Now what do we do?” I asked. My sister stood lifeless, her feet pinned to the ground, gripped in an invisible web of thoughts that rendered her mute and blind, sightless to the fear in my four-year-old face. “Friede, what are we going to do?” I whined and tugged at my sister’s hand in vain.
With a shake of her head, fierce enough to cause unwanted thoughts to tumble out, she came back to life. In front of our feet stretched a mangled mess. Ahead lay a forty-yard path that led to the village baker; behind us a hundred steps of sidewalk that stretched into infinity and certain terrors.
Only moments before, three mouths had watered in anticipation as the unbaked cake spread languid across the surface of a large baking sheet. Tucked in their dough beds, row upon row of dark plums dripped their juice and settled in to bond to the tacky surface. All of this lay hidden beneath a thick layer of cinnamon streusel with a cotton dish-towel safeguarding the concoction. In an hour or two, once transformed into a golden-hued wonder in the village baker’s oven, we would have escorted the precious treat to be the honored guest in our home. But now our anticipation and pleasure had burst apart and fear took its place. How could we return home to tell Mutti that her work was now a disaster?
Earlier that summer morning Mutti (a German diminutive for Mother) stood in our tiny kitchen to make Pflaumenkuchen (Plum cake). She had measured and blended flour, water, sugar and a lump of yeast, leaving all to bubble and froth into an airy mix. She kneaded the dough into a ball, returning it finally to proof in a greased and covered bowl. While it rested, she washed and pitted dark purple, sun-warmed ripe plums, cutting each in spread-eagled quarters. She added cinnamon to a generous heap of sugar, and then combined all to let the flavors infuse the fruit. As the dough fermented and proofed, a unique yeasty, brew-house aroma filled our kitchen.
After an hour the pale gray, oil-slick and bubble-studded bulk had inflated like a balloon threatening to overflow the bowl. The plums had soaked in the sugar and sweated a cinnamon-laced delicious liquid. The nectar teased and tempted us. When it came to sweet treats, my sister and I were like frenzied dancers in the wake of Bacchus’s procession, wild with longing and unable to resist.
Friede and I had watched with muted anticipation as Mutti piled, placed and pushed the plums on the dough. When done, each sliver of fruit rested secure and swaddled in a bed of warm, aromatic batter. By itself, once baked, this was a decadent treat. But Mutti’s baking was an art form, and good enough was never enough. Capping her work Mutti cut cold, golden butter into flour, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon over both and with deft fingertips pinched and combined all. The final touch: sprinkling the pea-sized buttered crumbles over the surface.
Plumcake, once baked, became a creation of baked light brown crumbles hugging deep red-purple plums that oozed over yellow-gold dough; the sight of this, along with the smell of tantalizing sweet-spiced sugar and cinnamon, would drive us even closer to madness. Worse still was the fact that Mutti made us wait an eternity (24 hours is a long time for greedy mouths); it was usually Sunday afternoon before she cut her delicacies. And then we counted ourselves blessed if we each received more than one slice.
Money was scarce, and subsequently, Mutti’s treats were an even rarer visitor. Gluttony was never an option; the delight was meant to be savored over days, if not a week. To us our mother’s tarts, pies and cakes, hand-made from scratch, were manna from heaven, like coins found in the street, infrequent and precious.
With the long-awaited Sunday afternoon’s indulgence behind us, Mutti hid whatever remained. Despite warnings from her, my sister and I found it impossible to resist seeking the treasure. Since our apartment was small the hunt was easy; there were few places to hide a 16” x 24” baking sheet. However, once we found it there came the delicate, thorny part. To lift streusel from a cake without the theft being detected is an art-form; it is even more complicated when the thief has to pick blindly. At twelve years old my sister was not very tall. It was a challenge for Friede to reach into the recesses of the top shelf in our mother’s Schrank (a German furniture item that combines a wardrobe and entertainment center) without moving the sheet, and try to pick the golden morsels off in a random pattern. It was also dangerous.
“Do you think Mutti can tell?” I often asked. If our theft was discovered we were guaranteed to receive stinging wallops across the backside. Nevertheless, the risk was not enough to keep us from trying. At times, luck was with us; my sister’s picking skills left no detectable trail.
But on this warm summer day good fortune had let us down; how could we hide a disaster of this size?
In vain Friede tried to scoop the jumbled pile of dough and fruit back on the sheet, pulling here, tugging there. Yet tar and asphalt speckled the moist mass and held on like glue; rocks and dirt could not masquerade as plums or streusel. With a final effort to find the answer Friede’s eyes scanned the street, hoping that a savior would appear. None came to the rescue. With a sigh she surrendered, lifted the now empty sheet, took my hand and, together, we turned and plodded back home.
Breaths shallow, hearts fluttering, two pair of feet moving like tired, trapped and hopeless fowl in an oil-slick sea, we entered our home.
Mutti stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. “That was quick,” she said, glancing at us. Then she noticed the empty baking sheet. She turned and dried her hands on her apron. “What happened?”
“Mutti, I don’t know what happened,” Friede stammered her eyes downcast. I felt my hand gripped hard. “We were just walking along, talking and then…” she said, the words trailing off into a whisper. In the silent kitchen the clock ticked steady and loud, an audible calm unmatched by the hidden, wild thumping beat of our hearts.
“Oh my god”, Mutti yelled, bent forward and slapped her thighs. We flinched and stepped back. Mutti rose. Laughter poured from her lips, rising, rising, rising until we, bewildered but relieved, joined in.
Yes, on that warm, long-ago summer day, hopes were dashed and stomachs disappointed. Weeks passed before another treat adorned our plates and enhanced our usual meager table. That year, as the season for Pflaumenkuchen rolled by in a flurry of work, chores and school, we did not taste this particular treat again. However, there was a bigger delight for my sister and me; for once, punishment did not follow mischief and what was expected, feared and dreaded had not occurred.
Each year when plums appear in supermarkets I am reminded of those two little frightened girls of long ago. Today when I stand in my kitchen measuring flour, kneading dough, cutting and placing plums, once again attempting to recreate my own version of a beloved cake, a smile settles on my face as I relive the events of the day of doom. These days I do not have to resist temptation and I don’t have to wait until Sunday afternoon. While the cake cools I brew a small pot of coffee and whip fresh cream. I cut myself a generous slice of cake, slather a heaping dollop of cream on top, settle at the table and indulge in delectable food and fond memories.
Thank you, Mutti!
Zwetschgenkuchen (Plum flan)
Butter cake base:
1 lb (550g) all-purpose flour
1 oz (25g) yeast (I use Fleischman’s Active dry yeast)
1 tea. superfine, caster, sugar (I use regular and it works just as good)
1 cup (8oz) milk
@ 1/2 cup (4 1/2 fl. oz) oil
scant 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
Generous 1/2 cup (50g) soft, fine, unseasoned breadcrumbs
3-4 lb (1 1/2 – 2 kg) plums, (Italian Prune type, deep purple to black, are ideal)
Scant 1/2 cup (50g) chopped almonds
1/2 cup (125 g) sugar (more if plums are very tart)
A little cinnamon
Preparing the plums:
- Wash, drain and pit the plums
- Cut each in half then butterfly each half by cutting top and bottom of each half without cutting through entirely
- Place plums in bowl
- Add sugar and cinnamon and let soak while working on the dough (if the plums are too tart, add more sugar and let soak overnight!)
Preparing the base:
- Lightly grease and flour a baking sheet
- Sift flour into a mixing bowl and make a small well in the middle
- place yeast in the well and mix with the sugar and a little warm milk until it forms a smooth paste
- Leave to stand for 10 minutes
- Add remaining milk, oil, egg and the sugar and work into the flour until he dough is firm and smooth
- Leave to stand in a warm place for 20 minutes (during a hot summer day, when my kitchen was cool, I placed the covered bowl in my linen closet; worked pretty well)
- On a cool, floured surface roll out dough to the size of your baking sheet; transfer to tray and prick the surface all over with a fork
- Sprinkle the surface with breadcrumbs
- Drain well the plums
- Arrange plums very close to each other to cover the entire surface
- Sprinkle with chopped almonds or with Streusel topping
- Bake in pre-heated oven at 400 F (200C) for approximately 25-30 minutes
- Allow to cool and cut the flan into 20-24 squares/or rectangles.
- Top with cinnamon/sugar mix if you did not use a streusel topping
- Whip fresh whipping cream with sugar to taste and heap a good-sized dollop on your slice
1 c all-purpose flour
3/4 c (125g) sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 t cinnamon
- Combine flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon in a bowl and mix with a fork until the mix resembles small lumps. Or, use cold hands to smoosh together quickly. DO NOT use a food processor, like I did the first time; makes the mix too fine!
- Sprinkle crumbs over the surface of the cake