In the spirit of a sweet Jewish New Year, I set out to make something sugary and delicious with my excess of farmers market stone fruits, ending up with this absolutely perfect Purple Plum Torte. For the Jewish Holidays, the stakes are always high—not only am I cooking for a crowd, but everyone’s brought their best tried-and-trued Jewish dishes to the table, so my dessert needs to be on par with its foodstuff competition. Which got me thinking a lot about Jewish Tradition.
The beguiling fondness of Jewish food is a simple recipe: equal parts tasty and association. Rather than just eating that brisket here and now, the ritualized dish extends beyond the present, touching on all the years past that its been enjoyed in this time of rebirth, religion, family, and friends. In a sense, horology is truly altered: time stops, remembers, anticipates. We look forward to the food with such pleasure, because the memories of the past are so rich. This is what was on my mind when I set out to create my Rosh Hashanah dessert. I didn’t want to just make something palatable—I wanted something timeless, the stuff of tradition. That dish that people grow to expect year after year, a muddling of gustation and memory.
Alas, the discovery of this recipe was met with extreme pleasure (or shall I say, much cavort over torte!) as it fulfilled both of my objectives: to create a recipe as timeless as it is tasty. Marian Burro’s Plum Torte was published by the New York Times every single September from 1982 to 1989, after its last print the newspaper received a torrent of nostalgic complaints. The torte had come to be known as the marker of the changing of seasons and new beginnings; as predictable as the transition from August to September. The torte is nothing fancy— it has only 8 ingredients and is laughably easy to make. Yet the recipe is revered with an air of filial piety, a solemn respect to its longevity and endurance by all who make it— and a double underlined mandate to not change. Variations are discouraged here, because the torte has already been perfected. You make the torte, you enjoy immensely, you contribute to the legacy.
At this point, curiosity may have already caused you to glance at the ingredient list, and you’re thinking, this looks pretty basic—why all the hype? I've got a few reasons. It’s because nothing bad ever came of creaming together massive amounts of butter and sugar. It’s because when purple, bubbly plum juice seeps down into the depths of the cake, it creates a texture so moist it literally melts in your mouth. It’s because it eats even better the next day—and the third. Lastly, it’s because it tastes like tradition, like something your family will lick their lips over until the next round of Jewish holidays, associating the tremendous torte with these precious, beloved gatherings as we gear up to start the fresh new year. Which, I’d have to say, is the best taste of all.
Purple Plum Torte (by Marian Burros, originally published in New York Times)
Makes 1 torte
¾ cup sugar
½ cup (8 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
12 pitted purple Italian plums, halved lengthwise (also called prune plums, the little guys)
Sugar (~2 tsp), lemon juice (~2 tsp), and cinnamon (~1 tsp), for topping—adjust to personal preference
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream the sugar and butter in a large bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
3. Spoon the batter into a spring form pan (a regular pan is fine, just don't expect to serve outside the pan) of 8, 9 or 10 inches. You can grease pan with butter first if preferred, but its not required. Place the plum halves, skin side up, on top of the batter concentrically, until entire surface is covered. Sprinkle lightly with sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon.
4. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. (Under bake if you plan on reheating the cake in the oven later.) Allow torte to cook for 10 minutes before serving.