Cleveland’s a Plum Cake
This statement makes no sense at first glance. It’s because I stitched two not so related stories together by a not so obvious thread: seasonal stone fruit.
In the 1970s and 80’s, Cleveland’s reputation was in the pits. We’re not talking plum pits. We’re talking a bottomless, dark, scary pit where crawling out seemed impossible. When all anyone talked about was the river catching fire, city officials tried to turn its reputation around by coming up with a tourism campaign that would make people like Cleveland and want to visit. They came up with this:
New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.
To help sell this, the mayor pitched a plum at a Cleveland Indians New York Yankees game. That didn’t help.
This slogan is so woefully naïve. And goofy and hopeless. But looking at it now, it’s charming because of those reasons. Cleveland isn’t as obviously great as New York. But it has tons of gems, great food, real grit, great neighbourhoods and one of the best markets in the country. Cleveland’s a plum of a city for sure. (Sorry, had to go there).
With plums in season right now, in piles outside of my neighbourhood’s greengrocers, I’ve been dying to make my mom’s plum cake. I got on the phone to Cleveland to get her recipe. You should know by now that all plum stories lead back to Cleveland. Looking at the list of humble ingredients, you’d think that this cake isn’t anything special. Don’t be fooled. This cake doesn’t look obviously great, but it’s beautiful and delicious and a plum would be hard pressed to find a better exit. And don’t be tempted to add any nutmeg or cinnamon or fancy brown sugar. This cake has enough charms already.
This type of cake is called a plyatsok in Ukrainian. I hesitate to call it a sheet cake because that just makes it sound like it’s chocolate or vanilla and it gets icing on top. It’s not that at all. It is a cake baked in a wide shallow baking sheet (more on the size later) but it’s definitely not a fluffy cake that has candles plopped in it. It’s on the thinner side but its crumb is tender and soft. As the cake bakes, each piece of fruit creates its own little nook, where it becomes soft and snuggles into its own syrupy sweetness. Plyatsok is a homey, comforting thing perfect with a cup of coffee or tea.
A few things about this recipe before we start.
My mom stressed the importance of using a wide shallow pan at least three times as she dictated the recipe to me over the phone. She said that this is where people screw it up by not using the right sized pan. She didn’t provide an actual pan measurement, just that it must be wide, shallow and that 13 x 9 is definitely the wrong size. I pulled out all of my wide shallow pans that weren’t 13 x 9 and then guessed which one would work best. I picked the 15½ x 10½ and crossed my fingers. That size baking pan totally worked and the plum cake turned out perfect.
This cake is not sponsored by Dr. Oetker. But there are certain little kitchen helpers that my mom likes to use and in this recipe it’s Dr. Oetker baking ingredients. Since I wanted this cake to be exactly how she makes it, I didn’t change a thing. I listed the measurements on the packets if you wanted to substitute another baking powder or your own vanilla sugar.
I love this cake using plums but blueberries are perfect, too. Sour cherries or peaches or nectarines would definitely work. And why not rhubarb? I could keep going but I think you get the picture.
For the cake:
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 9-gram packet Dr. Oetker vanilla sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 14-gram packet Dr. Oetker baking powder
About 16 Italian prune plums, sliced in half and pitted
For the streusel topping:
about ½ cup all-purpose flour
about ½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, cold and cut into small cubes
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place rack in the middle of the oven. Butter a 15½ x 10½ baking sheet.
First, make the streusel topping. Put the cubed butter into a medium bowl and then add a bit less than ½ cup each of the flour and sugar. The measurements in making this always differ slightly for me. So, start with a bit less and then add as you need. Using your hands, rub the flour, sugar and butter together until you get little clumps forming. You don’t want the clumps to feel too buttery or sticky. They should feel dry to your hands. You’ll be sprinkling these on top of your cake so keep in mind the size of the clumps. You want them to be smaller than a smallish pebble. Set aside when done.
Using a stand mixer, whisk eggs using a medium to medium -low speed. Add the softened butter and keep whisking until incorporated as best as possible. The butter will still be a bit clumpy. Add the sugar until the mixture is almost smooth.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, vanilla sugar and baking powder. Then whisk the flour mixture into the eggs, sugar and butter. You’ll need to stop mixing occasionally and using a spatula, push the batter down into the bowl so it can all be mixed well. When the batter is smooth, it’s done. It will be thick.
Scoop/pour the batter into your baking sheet. Using an offset spatula, smooth and even out the batter. Top the cake batter with your plums, cut side up. As you place them, press the plums down gently into the batter. You don’t want them pressed down all the way until they hit the pan. Just press them down a wee bit. Sprinkle a nice layer of the streusel over the cake. You’ll want good coverage.
Bake the cake for about 45 minutes or until puffed up and golden brown.