The plum trees have gone crazy. Both the proud peacocky one in the corner (tiny fruit that taste like candy), and the sturdy and reliable pillar of fruit production in the back center (larger, tarter, shaped like a heart). There are plums in every colander and bowl in my kitchen, and there’s nowhere to put anything else. We’ve had plum shrub, plum jam, and chicken with plums. Plum cake, other plum cakes, and one more plum cake again. I had to put this sign on the fence today.
This summer, I’ve had a little thing I like to call Mondays with Mistral. I’ve known Mistral since she was little, and now she’s all grown and, as of today, off to her Junior year in college. But on most recent Monday mornings, she’d swoop into the kitchen, tie on an apron, and start deciphering whatever beginnings of a recipe I was struggling over. Mistral has been my first ever employee, and it’s been a nice gentle easing into a piece of adulthood that terrified me.
I loved hearing her clonk around in the kitchen while I wrote in the back room. Every so often I’d come out and pour us two glasses of cold coffee with maple syrup and milk. And whenever I could get my act together, I’d make cake for the afternoon.
The first time we had Monday afternoon cake, Mistral told me about the family she lived with in Scotland a few years back. The mother (let’s call her Mrs. Scotland) kept a tin in the pantry that was always stocked with cake. At any given time, she could bring it out for a friend who dropped by, or she could simple tell one of the kids in the house to “go get yourself a bit of cake” when they needed a snack.
Nearly every time Mistral and I would sit down for a bit of cake, she’d start to tell me about the Mrs. Scotland and her cake tin.
“I’ve told you this story before, right?”
And I’d say yes, but honestly I could listen to it over and over. What a marvelous woman, to be forever entwined with afternoon cake in Mistral’s mind! I think if Mrs. Scotland knew the strength of her cake in Mistral’s memory, she’d feel very proud of her stocked cake tin. And although I’ll never meet Mrs. Scotland, I like to think that I know how the contents of her tin made her feel. I don’t have a tin, but I have a glass casserole with a lid, and when it’s on the counter, filled with cake, I feel a sense of calm and security.
Cake in the afternoon is civilized, don’t you think? And even in the most uncivilized sort of day, that simple square of flour and sugar and fruit spreads its order and security into the moments around it. Maybe it’s just the Brit in me (constantly arguing with the Jew), but I sure do like a bit of cake with my tea.
I’ve made this particular plum cake three times in the last two weeks. It’s a Nigel Slater recipe mostly, and it’s given the whole family a break from my previous favorite afternoon cake, the stone fruit tea cake from Rustic Fruit Desserts. Nigel (he won’t mind if I call him Nigel, will he?) calls it a pudding cake, and that’s exactly right. The first day it’s more of a gingerbread, and then the next afternoon and the afternoon after that, it doesn’t dry out as you might think a cake would do, but gets more and more moist until you serve it with a spoon instead of a fork. It sounds strange, I know, but we’ve all agreed that this cake reaches its peak on the third day. By then, the plums have released their juice into every crumb of the cake, and the ginger and cinnamon melt together to create something altogether different than either one. It’s just warm.
There are a few fancy sugars in this one, and my hope is that you might just have some muscavado sugar you bought for some other Nigel Slater recipe long ago. If not, I think light brown sugar should work just fine. And golden syrup–well, there’s no substituting that one. But then you’ll be stocked and ready for pear season.
(Before we get to the recipe, big congrats to Kate Stimmell, winner of the Mighty Nest lunch gear giveaway! Thanks so much to everyone who participated, and if you’re facing a new school year and haven’t read through the comments, I recommend it. There are some amazing suggestions in there.)