Purple Plum Torte
Like the clothes we purchase impulsively on sale and then never wear, most of us have more than a few recipes we have saved over the years that never get made. In the moment we saved them they captured our imagination. But because we weren’t specifically looking for them at the time, they get filed and then languish, unmade and unnoticed in our (virtual) recipe boxes. They are the recipes that are mostly just a passing fancy—a recipe looking for an occasion like the clothes that hang in our closets with the price tags still dangling from their sleeves.
Occasionally though, some of those recipes do get made. The stars align, the moment presents itself and suddenly a new favorite recipe emerges from the recesses of our dormant collection. Some recipes, it turns out, are just lying in wait.
When Purple Plum Torte was first published in the New York Times in 1983, I was still becoming a New Yorker. I had arrived in the city 18 months earlier at the tender age of twenty-four to begin a career in international banking. As a lifelong Midwesterner, the city felt like a foreign country.
Until I found an apartment to share with a college friend who had also just moved to the city, I stayed at The Barbizon Hotel in Midtown in the final days of its long history as a hotel for women. The room was a cramped, dingy place with a twin bed, a tiny desk and a small dresser. The bedspread and curtains were faded and worn and had the kind of big daisy-like pattern in oranges and yellows that was favored back in the late ‘60s. Bathroom facilities were down the hall and shared by my fellow floor residents who ranged in age from the very young like me to the very old. On the desk in my room was a Barbizon marketing brochure with a testimonial from Grace Kelly that read something like “The years at The Barbizon were among the best years of my life.” Hmm, I thought, things in Monaco must not be working out too well.
After a month or so I moved in with my roommate to a newly renovated one-bedroom apartment in a former walk-up on First Avenue and 90th Street. We lived on the second floor above a liquor store, which supplied us with a steady stream of cockroaches. Soon I was commuting back and forth to the office in lower Manhattan on an express bus that sped down the FDR Drive. It was on the bus that I perfected the commuter fold that allowed me to read the Times without invading the personal space of my fellow passengers. But instead of reading the headlines or going straight to the business pages, I often read the Metro section and the arts pages. I also looked forward to reading the weekly food section. All together, these sections about culture and everyday life helped me unravel the mystery of what it meant to be a New Yorker. The recipes, especially, seemed like a way into understanding the New York gestalt.
Of course I can’t be certain that I noticed Purple Plum Torte when it was first published in 1983, but I do recall noticing that it became a readers’ favorite and was reliably reprinted every year in early fall as a kind of punctuation to summer. I never saved the recipe but like many readers it captured my imagination and went on to become one of the most frequently requested recipes in the Times archives. (You have to wonder, though, if it was one of the most frequently requested recipes was it also one of the most beloved recipes nobody ever made? Surely if you made it you would save it and wouldn’t ask the Times to reprint it every year, right?)
For me, Purple Plum Torte was more than just a signifier for the beginning of fall. It represented something unknowable and unavailable about New Yorkers themselves. Who were these people who ate desserts made with plums? Plums were never a fruit in my consumption rotation growing up in the Midwest. If I did happen to eat one on occasion it would have been a big round globe with purple skin and yellow flesh that would have tasted sour and mushy. In the city, however, the kind of plums that appeared in the little greengrocers every year when the recipe was published were small, oblong Italian plums with purple skin and firm, pale yellow flesh. They were, to my Midwestern sensibilities, something quite foreign and exotic.
When I began taking French cooking lessons in the evening at Henri-Étienne’s intimate New York cooking school La Cuisine Sans Peur, I learned to make plum tarte with those cute little Italian plums. The plum torte, strangely, continued to elude me. Year after year I would wistfully reread the recipe when it appeared in the Times thinking that maybe this would be the year I made it. In a way, it became a metaphor for belonging in New York.
I lived in New York for twenty-four years and I never made that Purple Plum Torte. Did I ever feel over the years that I had become a real New Yorker? Not entirely. Somewhere, though, in the back of my mind the Purple Plum Torte was patiently waiting for me.
When I left New York at the age of forty-eight it was as a relative newlywed. My husband and I had married (a first marriage for both of us) a scant two years before and were headed to Brussels where he had landed a job. We agreed that when it was time to return we would not go back to Manhattan. We had both lived in apartments our entire adult life and we wanted to find out what it would be like to live in a house for change.
Fast forward a few years and here we are in the Brandywine Valley living where it feels like the country but is only minutes from suburban conveniences and still only a day trip distance from New York. After so many years of urban foraging—meaning frequenting many different specialty stores to fulfill my grocery needs—I think nothing of driving as far as thirty or more minutes to go to a particular store or farmers’ market to seek out my favorite foods. (I used to spend forty-five minutes getting from the West Side to the East Side so thirty minutes seems pretty close to me.) That’s how I came to discover the Purpleheart plum grown by North Star Orchard who sells their amazing varieties of plums, peaches, apples and Asian pears at the West Chester Growers’ Market in West Chester, Pa., about twenty-five minutes from my house.
Until I started eating plums grown by North Star Orchard, I’d given up on Purple Plum Torte. But when I tasted a Purpleheart—a mid-July plum with purple flesh and a complex flavor that is sweet with a hint of warm spices—Purple Plum Torte was finally dislodged from its cramped space in the dormant file. Suddenly a recipe that had been so elusive for so long became as approachable as an old friend. From the first time I made it, it became a house favorite. And because the torte can easily be frozen, I now make them by the half-dozen during a week or two-long baking marathon and stack them in the freezer to see us through the fall. Sure there are other plums you can use and maybe your favorites will be different than mine—blueberries, peaches or apples would also work.
This year when the Times featured the recipe they ran a separate piece that upped the ante with the title 5 Ways to Adapt Our Famous Plum Torte Recipe including the addition of spices like cardamom, ginger or nutmeg. So New York. I’m sticking with the original—with Purpleheart plums of course. From North Star Orchard. I call them torte-worthy.
Sometimes it just takes the right ingredients to find your way into a recipe—being a real New Yorker has nothing to do with it.
Here’s the original New York Times recipe for Purple Plum Torte. Just a couple of suggestions: Purple-fleshed plums make a more dramatic presentation as they contrast beautifully with the yellow cake. I have also found that this is one of those desserts that improves with age. Making it a day ahead of serving yields a moister cake. Besides, who doesn’t like to have dessert done a day ahead of a dinner party? Yet another reason this dessert is such a winner. To freeze, wrap the cooled torte in plastic wrap, then foil and slip it into a freezer bag for storing up to two months. (Best to clear out a shelf in your freezer before you start your marathon baking session once you get to love this torte as much as I do.)