In a welcome contrast to how I was feeling, our summer and fall were filled with beauty I couldn’t previously imagine. Beginning in early July, a weekly fruit CSA delivery from my favorite orchard covered our counter with the most gorgeous hues. Lapin cherries. Nectarcots. Donut peaches. Dinosaur egg pluots. Our kitchen frequently smelled like peaches. I made my first jam, first tart and several delicious crisps. I ordered extra cherries thinking I’d dry some for the winter but because I didn’t dry them long enough and they needed to be consumed, I made some uncommon recipes. (The best: cherry ketchup. Unbelievably delicious on a hamburger with roasted red onion and blue cheese.) But most of the fruit was eaten in pure form because it was truly stunning that way. Sometimes I just didn’t want to take the risk that it wouldn’t taste quite as delectable. Several weeks into the deliveries, we were joking that our boys were going to become stonefruit connoisseurs Miles was saying things like, “No want apricot. Want aprium!”
The rental house we’re in has an unusually large and flat lot for the city. It was part of the original orchard of our neighborhood and we have a very old, stately Italian prune plum tree and two well-established Asian pear trees. We figure they were neglected for a decade or so, given how the overall landscape looked when we moved in. Shortly after moving in, my husband took a tree pruning class and has spent hours since carefully grooming the trees of our yard. This year the plum tree burst at the seams, providing nearly 200lbs of fruit for our family, friends, neighbors and neighborhood food bank. One of my closest friends, who is responsible for at least half of the preferred recipes in my repertoire, made this upside down polenta cake with our plums and insisted that I try it after her husband swore it was the best cake he’d ever had. She makes really delicious cakes, so I knew we needed to try it. Plus, it a Melissa Clark recipe. If you’re a food writer for the New York Times, you’re pretty reliable.
So, I baked it. Twice. The first time I followed Melissa’s recipe apart from decreasing the sugar a bit. (From tasting our plums, I knew they were sweet enough to handle less.) I shared it with my family, a visiting friend and her two year old son. We were very quiet for a few minutes. It’s a smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and just perfectly sweet cake. That night it was paired with a homemade lightly sweetened vanilla whipped cream.
I wanted to make it again when we were already done processing our tree’s plums but newly inundated with Giant Italian prune plums from our CSA. I invited my wonderful group of graduate school SLP friends for an impromptu Wednesday night cake night. What I didn’t do was check my refrigerator for cornmeal. I had made cornbread the week before. Twice. So, left with quite a bit less than a cup of cornmeal and no time for a trip to the store, I contemplated my options. There, alongside my random bags of flours and grains in the fridge, sat millet. (I’ve used it to make muffins from Heidi Swanson’s latest cookbook.) Worth a shot!
You know what? My husband and I both liked it better. The millet added a little bit of texture, a tiny crunch here and there, that made it more interesting. Same incredible flavors, slightly more intriguing experience. It also didn’t hurt that we had some Molly Moon’s salted caramel ice cream in the freezer as an accompaniment.
Here’s my happy surprise version of Melissa Clark’s cake. Her recipe or my adapted version, you can’t go wrong. If you’re still lucky enough to have plums or if you have some stored in the freezer, hop to it! (We’re on our last week with plums from our CSA and I’m guessing our farmer’s markets won’t have them beyond this weekend, if it all. I think I’d be disappointed with a grocery store plum. Better to wait until they’re in season again.) If not, come visit me. We’ll try it out a version using the plums in my freezer. I would love another reason to make the cake.
Upside Down Plum Polenta Cake
20-24 Italian prune plums or 10-12 Giant Italian prune plums, sliced 1/2-inch thick (If you have another variety of plums, you can estimate the number or go by a weight of ~1 3/4 lbs plums. I don’t think this part of the recipe is so picky that a little variation will hurt.)
1 1/3 cups to 1 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup cornmeal (I used Bob’s Red Mill fine grind cornmeal.)
1/3 cup millet (You can find this in the bulk foods aisle of a health(ier) food store or through Bob’s Red Mill. If not, omit the millet and use 1 cup cornmeal.)
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup all-purpose. If you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, don’t use it. A pastry flour’s grind is thinner, making it a suitable substitute up to 50%. Other whole wheat grinds might be too gritty and dense.)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (I prefer Diamond brand.)
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs
1/4 cup sour cream (Whole fat. Always tastes better.)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Whipped cream or ice cream for serving. Optional, but very nice.
Preheat your oven to 350° F. Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease the paper and pan well. You can also use a 9-inch round greased cake pan if you don’t care about the presentation- it’s less likely to exit the pan with grace if it’s not springform. But, I wouldn’t go buy a springform just for this occasion unless you’re expecting royalty. Either way, put a raised rim cookie sheet underneath your pan to catch any plum juice that might boil up and drip out while it bakes. This is especially important with the springform pan.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the plums and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar (depending on your plums’ sweetness) until the plums are tender. Stir occasionally, watching for their liquids to release, reduce, and begin to look syrupy-thick. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.
In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, millet, flour, baking powder, and salt.
Cream the room temperature butter and remaining cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one a time, letting each one mix in completely before adding the next. Beat to combine. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla.
Remove the bowl from your mixer and gently fold in the dry ingredients with a spatula until just combined. Plop the batter on top of the plums and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake is golden and springs back when gently touched, approximately 45 to 50 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes, then unmold the springform side and invert it onto a plate. Or pray and dance and hope that your crazy flipping actions with the cake round will not lead to a sloppy mess on the plate. (This may or may not have happened when I used a round cake pan the second time. The dancing part. No one cared that it wasn’t perfect because it was going into our mouths. And it tasted really, really good. And they’re the type of friends that don’t care about perfection. The best.) Serve warm.
If you choose to serve it with whipped cream or ice cream, good choice. Homemade whipped cream is really easy to make and definitely worth a few extra minutes. You can add vanilla, liquor, or other extracts of choice. The salted caramel ice cream was really nice as a side, but vanilla might be a better choice to highlight the cake. My talented former neighbor just posted a recipe for salted caramel ice cream if you make your own. Make any of these and you’re guaranteed a very good night for you, your friends and family!
Yields one delicious cake. Serves 8 hungry adults or 12-16 well-fed children. Not both.