It's that time of the year again, when leaves turn golden, amber and brown. A nip in the air reminds us that the season will turn soon and the year seems to rush towards an end — a perfect time to pause and reflect. I wrap myself in layers with a warm cup of tea in my hands, thinking of the time that's long gone — one when I was a little girl and autumn wasn't synonymous with colourful leaves.
I wish had childhood memories of welcoming fall with plum puddings and cakes, the kind I read in Anne of Green Gables and the way Digory describes in The Chronicles of Narnia. I remember watching the early morning mist from the window in my room and smells wafting from mother's kitchen — fragrances of many things delicious but not plums macerated in spices and sugar. These fruits weren't exactly common or easily available on the eastern coasts of India where I grew up. Globalization hadn't touched the markets then. Unless, we were holidaying somewhere in the northern hills, where a variety of plum — aloo bukhara — are grown, we never got to enjoy plums. It's strange how you can long for something so much having never had it for real or that often. But that's until you come across this beautiful word in the Portuguese language, saudade. Plums were my saudade, an untranslatable Portuguese word for yearning, often for something that might never have happened.
My mother baked many bundt cakes and nankhatais, and I'm sure she would have made me a plum cake too if she had access to fresh plums where we lived. So, a store-bought plum cake during Christmas was undoubtedly my favourite, which had dried plums or prunes. Although, at that time, I didn't know that the cake was made of dried fruits like raisins, apricots, dates, prunes, currants, figs, glazed cherries, unsweetened cranberries that 'plumped' up (swelling by soaking in liquor or non-alcoholic juice over a period), and hence the name 'plum cake.' (This seems like a ramification of the colonial influence in Indian food, but I haven't ventured into its history at length.) My ignorance was dismissed as I grew up, and my saudade grew. As an adult in Bombay and Bangalore, I got to enjoy some imported and expensive plums and plum-related products readily available in superstores. But then, it wasn't the same, was it? The heart wants what it wants!
Over thirty years of my life passed and I landed in Canada, never knowing that I'd get to eat some of the best varieties of stone fruits here, including my dear plums! Every year when the season of plums and other stone fruits arrives, I make the most of it. Other than stuffing my face with them, I use them in cobblers or crisps a lot. If you know me, you know I'm not a baker. So, cobblers and crisps are things that come naturally to me. To store, I make a lot of chutneys, pickles, preserves, and sometimes jams. The remains of the bulk purchases go into coffee cakes! Again, easy and less time consuming.
With summer closing into fall this year, I made a good batch of nectarine preserves, some peach crumble, a spicy plum chutney, and finally this wonder of a plum almond cake! Perfect with a good cuppa and a book, it brings me joy every time I bake it. Our first day of fall in Whitehorse was a disappointment this year — wet, chilly and even snowy for a bit! But when you've some warm cake just out of the oven, a gloomy day can become bright, even if it's temporary!
I have been making this cake for 3 years with different fruit variations, but the best one was this time. No frosting, not heavily sweet, and perfectly moist and spongy! Make it and treat yourself this season. Best thing — it works with any kind of stone fruit or even berries. If you don't have plums, get creative and see what you've to substitute.
I often hear from people that my food writing brings forward childhood nostalgia. But let me tell you, many of the foods I like and enjoy now, aren't from my childhood at all. Like a pasta rolled in fresh pesto, a bowl of warm ratatouille, a grilled melon salad with hints of goat cheese, a platter of hummus with toasted veggies or pastel de nata from my favorite bakery, or this plum almond cake smelling of autumn. Memories are incessant, although we usually associate them with the past. After never having a fall memory of plum cakes, I have created those memories now. These times will become memories for my future self, one that will look back and smile, remembering the fragrances emanating from the oven while the trees let go their leaves one more time.
6-7 medium sized roughly chopped plums, preferably the sweeter variety like the red ones Don't chop the plums too fine.
Zest of 1 lemon and juice of 1/2 of the same lemon that's zested (use orange if lemon is not available)
1 tsp sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup almonds roughly crushed
1/4tsp cinnamon or star anise powder or both (optional)
1 tsp baking powder
2/3 to 3/4 cup powdered sugar (This depends on how sweet you want the cake. Since I use sweet plums, I go less on the sugar.) I also keep a small portion aside for dusting the cake later
1 tbsp Greek yogurt (thick yogurt) or sour cream
2 eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup olive oil (or any other oil like sunflower oil)
1/2 tsp vanilla
Some flaked almonds to decorate
Grease a cake pan and line with parchment paper, and pre-heat your oven to 350 F.
In a big bowl, mix almond powder, spices (if using), baking powder and flour and slightly whisk using a hand whisk to combine. Keep aside.
In another bowl, add the chopped plums and sprinkle 1 tsp sugar along with zest and juice of lemon. Mix to coat plums with the sugar and lemon, and keep aside. Make sure you keep a few plums to top the cake. So keep a few pieces aside.
In a third bowl, add powdered sugar, yogurt/sour cream, eggs, oil and vanilla and beat to incorporate everything together. You can use an electric whisk to mix too. Use it at a moderate speed for about 3-4 minutes or till you see a light fluffy mix with tiny bubbles.
Add the sugar and lemon coated plums to the dry flour mix and combine gently.
Pour the wet mix into the flour and plum mix, folding the plums into the wet mix slowly and gradually. Now, pour it into the prepared cake pan.
Top it with the remaining plums and some flaked almonds, and bake it for 50 to 55 minutes or until a tooth pick inserted comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then let it cool on a wired rack for another 10 minutes. Dust some powdered sugar on top for beauty!
Note: To make this cake eggless, you can use up to 1/4 cup thick yogurt or sour cream and 1/2 tsp baking soda along with the baking powder. Although texture doesn't turn out exactly the same, the taste nonetheless is great.