AT THIS time of year, when I was a little girl, my grandmother would cook up a wonderful compote of Italian prune plums poached in a sugar syrup. These smallish oval, dark purplish-blue plums with golden-green flesh meant fall, the harvest and some solace for summer's end. Right now, they are at their height in quality and at their low in price.
Italian prune plums should have a good rich color. They should be almost ripe, not mushy or shriveled, and yield lightly to pressure. While the pit can be removed easily from halved ripe plums, I use a wonderful widget that lets me pit and quarter 10 pounds of these plums in nothing flat. This prune plum pitter comes from Germany, which is not surprising since prune plums are used extensively through-out Middle Europe.
Italian prune plums are delicious raw, but when cooked they are devastatingly wonderful -- in tarts, cakes, dumplings, they are superb. I would feel as though I were cheating at solitaire if I didn't cook up a few quarts for the freezer -- defrosted and thickened with a little cornstarch, they are an elegant filling for a meringue shell, especially in midwinter when the hunger for good fruit intensifies.
Prune plums have the great advantage of being able to be used fresh or canned interchangeably in most recipes. To can plums, cook up a medium syrup by adding 1 part sugar to 2 parts water. Stir well and bring slowly to the boil. Wash the plums, prick their skins and pack them firmly into sterilized jars. Cover with boiling syrup and process for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath. To use these canned plums in recipes, simply halve and pit them and drain them well.
For plum jam macerate overnight pitted and quartered plums in half their weight of sugar. Cook until the syrup jells (about 220 degrees on a candy thermometer), stirring constantly for the last half hour of cooking. Pour into sterilized jars and seal with paraffin, or process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. If disaster strikes and one tiny bit of plum burns or becomes caramelized, do not put your oddly flavored jam down the disposal. Stir some grenadine or black currant syrup into the plums -- these are tough enough to mask the unpleasantness and add quite a nice flavor of their own. I speak from experience. ITALIAN PRUNE PLUM CAKE (serves 8)
A good dessert with a homey meal; also a delicious coffee cake. 2 1/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour 1 envelope yeast 1/4 cup sugar 1/3 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon Grated rind of 1/2 lemon 2 eggs 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled 2 pounds Italian prune plums Sugar
Place the flour in a mixing bowl, make a large well in the flour and add the yeast, sugar and milk. Mix the ingredients in the well and let stand 20 minutes or until the yeast starts to bubble. Add the salt, cinnamon and grated lemon rind. Break the eggs into the well, mix until the eggs are liquified. Add 7 tablespoons of melted and cooled butter. Mix again. Gradually gather the flour from the edges and gather into a ball. The dough will be soft. Knead about five minutes by hand or with a dough hook and set in a large clean bowl to rise. Let the dough rise until 1 1/2 times its original size. Punch down and refrigerate over night.
To make the cake, pit the plums. Butter a 9 or 10-inch quiche pan (I use a deep 9-inch pan) with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Roll the dough out 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick and fit it into the mold, forming a slightly thicker border around the rim of the pie plate. Arrange plums on tops of the dough and let stand 1 hour at room temperature. Bake 1 hour in a preheated 375 degree oven. If edge of dough browns too soon, cover with foil and remove foil for last 5 minutes. Remove from oven and while still hot sprinkle liberally with sugar. Let cool before eating. From "When French Women Cook" by Madeleine Kamman. ITALIAN PRUNE PLUM STRUDEL (Makes 3 Strudels) About 1/2 package (1/2 pound) phyllo dough, preferably never frozen 1 cup butter, melted 2 cups fresh bread crumbs 6 cups pitted, quartered Italian prune plums 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind 2/3 cup sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon
Open package of phyllo and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Place one sheet of phyllo, the long end toward you, on a work surface, and brush it with melted butter. Sprinkle a small handful of bread crumbs over the dough. Repeat 4 more times.
Mix together the plums, lemon rind and sugar-cinnamon. Place a 2-inch strip of the prune mix along one end of the dough. Fold in the sides of the dough and roll up. Place on baking sheet, seam side down. Brush the top with more melted butter. Make light incisions on the diagonal to ease cutting later. Continue until plum mixture is used up. Bake in a 400 degree oven for about an hour, or until nicely browned.These strudels can also be baked for about half an hour and then frozen. Finish baking when ready to use. From Paula Peck's "The Art of Fine Baking" ITALIAN PRUNE PLUM TART (6 servings) 3/4 cup blanched almonds 1/3 cup sugar 1 large egg 2 tablespoons butter, softened 1/4 teaspoon almond extract 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated 1 unbaked 8-inch tart shell, fresh 24 Italian prune plums, pitted and quartered or 1 (2-pound) can whole plums, well drained and cut in half 1 cup currant jelly 2 tablespoons port wine
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.Combine the almonds and sugar in a food processor and blend for 30 seconds, or until smooth. Do not grind to a paste.Add the egg, butter, almond and vanilla extracts and lemon rind and blend for another 20 seconds. Spread the mixture evenly over the unbaked tart shell. Arrange the plums in a decorative pattern over the mixture. Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake in the center part of the oven for 1 hour. Remove when done and let cool.
Heat the currant mixture and port wine until melted smooth. Spoon this mixture over the entire tart and let it cool to room temperature. Serve the tart warmed up a bit or at room temperature. A bowl of sweetened Creme Fraiche flavored with 2 tablespoons Creme di Cassis goes well with this tart. (A version of creme fraiche can be make by combining 2 cups heavy cream, not ultra-pasturized -- High's carries good commercial heavy cream as do some natural-food stores -- with 3 tablespoons buttermilk, and letting this sit in a warm place until the mixture thickens -- anywhere from 8 to 24 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Keep it in a warm, draft-free place. Once done, stir it thoroughly, cover and refrigerate. wIt will keep for 10 days to 2 weeks. It cannot be frozen. From Perla Myers' "From Market to Kitchen Cookbook" HUNGARIAN PLUM DUMPLINGS (Makes 18 dumplings, to serve 3 or 4) 6 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds) Salt 18 Italian prune plums 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour 3 eggs 8 tablespoons (1/4 pound) butter, at room temperature 18 small sugar cubes (sugar dots) 3/4 cup dry bread crumbs
The night before, cook the potatoes in their jackets in salted water until done; drain. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel them and put them through a ricer. Spread the riced potatoes out on a baking sheet and let them stand overnight in a cool place to dry them out. There should be 3 cups, loosely packed.
Pit the plums but leave them whole and set them aside. Transfer the riced potatoes to a bowl and mix in the flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Add the eggs and work the dough together with a wooden spoon and your floured hands. Beat in 5 tablespoons of butter, a tablespoon at a time. Continue to work the dough with your hands until smooth. Let it rest for 20 minutes, then roll it out 1/4-inch thick on a floured board and cut it into 3-or 4-inch squares. To form the dumplings, flour your hands, place a square of dough in your left palm, put a plum in the middle of it and a sugar cube in the pit cavity. Pinch the dumpling closed, and roll it into a round smooth ball. Place it, pinched side up, on a floured surface until ready to cook. Just before serving, drop the dumplings one at a time into plenty of rapidly boiling salted water. Do not crowd them in the pot. After a minute give the dumplings a jog with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking to the bottom. Let them cook 12 to 15 minutes uncovered after they rise to the surface. Taste one: the plum should be hot and the dough firm but not gummy. Do not overcook. While boiling the dumplings, quickly brown the bread crumbs in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter. As the dumplings are ready, lift them carefully out of the water with a slotted spoon, roll them in the browned bread crumbs and keep them warm until all are done. Serve immidiately. From "The Hungarian Cookbook" by Susan Derecskey LE CROQUANT AUX PRUNES (6 servings) The croquant: 1/2 cup almonds blanched and finely chopped 1/3 cup sugar 1/2 cup flour Pinch of salt 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) sweet cold butter 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 pounds Italian prune plums About 1/2 cup sugar Juice of 1 lemon strained Butter for the baking dish
Mix the almonds with the 1/3 cup sugar, flour and pinch of salt. With a fork, two knives or a pastry blender -- never with your hands -- work in the cold butter by bits. Add the vanilla. Do not moisten the mixture or overwork it; it should remain crumbly. Set the croquant mixture aside in a cool place.
Pit the plums and put them in an enamel saucepan. Add 1/2 cup sugar and lemon juice and let the plums macerate for about 1 hour. aSet the pan over moderate heat, bring to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 to 8 minutes.
Remove the plums to a buttered baking dish. Strain the juice, return it to the pan and reduce it over heat to a thick heavy syrup. Pour the syrup over the plums and set them aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread half the croquant mixture over the plums. Bake for about 10 minutes until the croquant is golden and crunchy. Remove, spread with the remaining croquant mixture, making a dome toward the center. Return to the oven and bake for about 10 minutes longer until golden brown. Set on a rack and cool slightly before serving. From "Simca's Cuisine" by Simone Beck