“Is this bread or cake?” my husband asked when I made a traditional German plum cake with yeast dough a few years ago. He was not adamant about it but I could tell that he was not too crazy about it neither. That’s when I decided that I would not make anything again that he does not like, even if it’s a German classic.
However I was not going to give up on plum cake just yet. Today I made another cake that I think reconciled my husband with German Plum Cake.
In more than 12 years since I have been cooking and baking my way through German cuisine, first for my book, then for this blog, my husband dutifully tested (and photographed) hundreds of German dishes. There was only a handful he did not like. Veal liver with apples and onions, a specialty from Berlin, is one of them. Fried liver reminded him of his childhood when his father, raising him alone at the time, fed it to him regularly because it was one of the few things his father knew how to prepare. There are a few other German dishes my husband did not like and in most cases, I agreed. Pork Chops with Dried Fruit (Schlesisches Himmelreich), a specialty from Silesia, went straight out the door in the 2013 edition of my book.
German Plum Cake with yeast dough baked on a sheet (Pflaumenkuchen vom Blech), often topped with streusel, is one of the most popular German plum cakes. When it is done well – thin crust, and the juice of the plums does not soak the bottom crust – it can be heavenly. But the yeasted cake is best eaten within a few hours, it usually falls flat the next day. And as a sheet cake it feeds a crowd.
German baking has a wonderful alternative to yeast dough that my husband likes a lot. It is called Quark-Öl-Teig, a crust made with oil and quark. It is quick, versatile, not too heavy, and, another boon, it rolls out easily and beautifully. Instead of Quark I make it with Greek yogurt, which works great. I make this crust not only for fruit pies but also for savory pies, quiche and tart.
Labor Day marks the end of the summer season in the United States. The last day of swimming laps for me at the pool in town, and the first day of our son back in college. For me, plum cake is a sweet farewell to summer. And I am always waiting for European plums to show up at local farm stands. This weekend they did!
This is a smaller version of a German Plum Cake because it its only my husband and me at home now. We both love marzipan so I added marzipan streusel for a special twist.
Plum Cake with Marzipan Streusel (Pflaumenkuchen mit Marzipanstreusel)
For German plum cake you need what in the United States is sold under the name Italian plums, Italian prune plums, zwetschge plums, or sometimes sugar plums.
The terminology is a bit confusing, here’s the gist: European plums (Prunus domestica) have several subspecies and varieties, including damson plum, Italian plum and zwetschge plum.
While it’s easy to tell Damson plums and Italian plums/zwetschge plums apart – the first type is clingstone, the others are freestone – there are several differences between Italian plums (Pflaumen, Prunus domestica) and zwetschge plums (Zwetschgen, Prunus domestica subsp. domestica). Italian plums are larger, more round, sweeter and juicer than Zwetschge plums. They have a soft flesh and their skin has a characteristic line or groove. Zwetsche plums are smaller, more oblong, and very dark purple or blue, with a whitish coating. Their stone is long and very easy to remove. Zwetschge plums are tarter, firmer and less juicy than Italian plums, which makes them the preferred choice for baking in Germany.
In Germany, where every few years there is a plum glut, I remember seeing plums trees bent over under the load of the fruit during my visit in September 2009, a record year for plums. There were so many plums that people did not even bother picking them any longer.
Because Italian plums are not always easy to find where I live, I cannot be picky about the type and use whatever there is. Even when they are ripe, the plums can be a little sour. This cake is moderately sweet, so add more sugar if you like.
Sprinkling the dough with farina is a little trick used by German home bakers to absorb some of the juice that the plums release during baking.
½ cup (65 g) blanched whole almonds
½ cup (65 g) confectioners’ sugar
4 ounces (110 g) Greek yogurt (I use 0% or 2%, but you can also use whole-milk) or Quark, preferably low-fat
3 tablespoons 2% milk
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1½ cups (7½ ounces/210 g) all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 pounds (900 g) Italian or zwetschge plums, washed and halved
1 to 2 tablespoons farina
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (4 ounces/115 g) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons (50 g) sugar
4 tablespoons (55 g) cold butter, diced
1. To make the marzipan, follow my recipe here but omit the liqueur, cocoa and cinnamon. Set the marzipan aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Cut out a piece of parchment the size of a jellyroll pan measuring 14.5 x 10 inches (36 x 25 cm), or a baking pan wth a high rim of similar size.
3. For the dough, mix all ingredients in a bowl with a spoon until they form a ball.
4. Transfer to the countertop and knead with your hands until smooth.
5. Place the piece of parchment on the countertop and dust it with flour. Roll out the dough to the size of the parchment plus ½ inch (1.25 cm) all around. Lift it and fit it with the paper into the jellyroll pan. Remove any excess dough from the rim or use it to patch spots on the edges where it is a bit short (this dough is very forgiving).
6. Evenly sprinkle the dough with 1 to 2 tablespoons farina. Arrange the plum halves but side up, rooftop-shingle style, slightly overlapping each other.
7. For the streusel, mix the marzipan with the flour and the sugar in a bowl and rub with your fingertips to a fine meal. Add the butter and crumble to large streusel. Distribute the streusel over the cake.
8. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the crust and the streusel are light brown. Let cool completely before cutting.
Makes 1 small sheet cake