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How to make the perfect German plum cake

How to make the perfect German plum cake

For a place with such lovely plums (complaints to the editor, please), we have a serious dearth of recipes for the glorious annual glut. Crumble, jam and pie just about covers it, as far as I can tell (though all corrections welcome), none of which, delicious as they are, come close to the national institution that is the German plum cake, variously known as zwetschgendatschi, zwetschgenkuchen, quetschekuche or pflaumenkuchen, depending on where you are in the country. I'm going to stick with "plum cake" - though, in fact, bread or a tart would be a more accurate description of a dish that seems to have charmed everyone who's ever set foot in Germany in late summer. Indeed, my mum still waxes lyrical about the zwetschgenkuchen made by the grandmother of the family she stayed with while studying in Frankfurt more than half a century ago. You rarely see them in British bakeries, so if you've never tried one, you're in for a treat. The fruit Many of the recipes are very specific about the type of plum to be used: Anja Dunk writes in Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings that "zwetschgen are small, dark-as-night plums with a vibrant yellow flesh, both tart and sweet in flavour. They are brilliant for baking because they don't hold as much water as Victoria and other red plum varieties." Noting the difficulties in getting hold of them here, she tips "the little deep-purple Italian plums or plum varieties such as Herman, Czar and Edwards" as the best substitute. Luisa Weiss, author of the blog The Wednesday Chef, also calls for "Italian prune plums" in the recipe in her first book, My Berlin Kitchen - these are oval, rather than round, with dark, cloudy skins, and I found them relatively easily in a greengrocers, although a farmer's market would probably have them in peak season, too. Ripe and juicy, they prove hard to stone, but stay satisfyingly plump in the oven, as do the victoria plums recommended in the Konditor and Cook book as "paler and a bit sharper" than the traditional German variety. Much as I like all the tarts I make, however, the victorias taste blandly sweet in comparison with some of the other plums, and are distinctly wet: oddly enough, some of the most popular fruit proves to the be the rather underripe imported red plums I try in Diana Henry's recipe in Roast Figs Sugar Snow on the basis that there's a picture of something similar at the side of the recipe. Their sour flavour makes a lovely contrast to her sweet pastry: proof that you can achieve success even with the most unpromising fruit. Gersine Bullock-Prado, an American pastry chef with fond memories of her German mother's zwetschgendatschi, recommends damsons, which are also drier than standard round plums, though much sourer than zwetschgen. At the time of writing - mid-July - I'm unable to find any to try out, but I suspect they'd work very well indeed in the recipe below with a little extra sugar on top. In short, although smallish, dark plums are ideal in terms of flavour and water content, you can use just about anything here, from sour bullets to overripe to the point of jam. Which makes this a very versatile recipe indeed. More important, I think, is how you prepare them. Cut the pieces too small, and they'll disappear into the base. Unless they're real whoppers, halves should be fine, with a little nick in the skin, as Bullock- Prado recommends - "Why? Because that's how my mother and Omi did it." And I suspect they did it to stop the skins sliding off in the oven. (I forgot to do this in the perfect version: if you do, too, fret not; it will still taste just as delicious, and streusel hides a multitude of sins.) The base Although a quick Twitter poll suggests there seems to be some regional variation, as far as I can tell, yeasted dough and shortcrust pastries are fairly equally popular in Germany, though in the Saarland, "quetschekuche must be on dough", while another correspondent informs me that "down here (Franconia) we usually have the pastry-based ones with streusel" and someone else suggests that, in Munich at least, shortcrust versions give way to the heartier, breadier kind as summer becomes autumn. I even learn that, in the south-west of the country, and perhaps elsewhere, zwetschgenkuchen can be a savoury bread served with soup. None of which helps with our dilemma. If fluffy doughs and crisp pastry are both excellent vehicles for baked plums, how are we supposed to choose between the two? The dough has the advantage of being a better vehicle for plum juice (I'd recommend eating Henry's and Bullock-Prado's tarts as soon as they're cool enough to cram into your mouth, before sog sets in), and also for being slightly more unusual, though the pastry does double up as a streusel-type topping if required (of which more later). In the end, I decide to take an executive decision, mostly to stop people helping themselves to yet another slice, "just to remind myself what we're talking about", and go with the dough, simply because it's so definitively German. A plum tart could come from any number of places, but a plum bread feels special. The dough itself seems fairly standard: moderately sweet, enriched with egg and butter, although testers prefer the softer texture of those made with plain flour and egg yolks to the sturdier bun dough of the Konditor and Cook recipe with its strong bread flour and whole egg. Weiss's slightly wetter, lighter base is more popular than the one from Alfons Schuhbeck's forthcoming German Cookbook, although I suspect that the difference might also come from the fact that she bakes hers in a cake tin, giving a deeper base that's better protected from the heat of the oven, as opposed to the big tray bakes favoured by German bakeries, and the other two recipes. If you're feeding a crowd, I'd recommend the Schuhbeck version, but for tea (or perhaps coffee) at home, Weiss's works better. I'm also going to keep that dough quite plain: the fruit will have enough flavour not to need any extra help, much as I like the idea of Schuhbeck's amaretto and vanilla, and Weiss's lemon zest, such fripperies can be saved for the top. The sponge Schuhbeck lines his dough with cake crumbs, Dunk with semolina and my mum reckons her landlady used to use breadcrumbs - all to soak up the crimson juices of the ripe plums as they split in the oven. This strikes me as a very good idea: a certain amount of damp squidge is desirable, but sogginess certainly isn't. Spare cake is not something I have lying around, however, and semolina, though easier to resist, isn't half as nice with plums as ground almonds, so I decide to give them a whirl instead, and find they work admirably. If you'd prefer to keep it nut-free, use one of the other options instead. To streusel, or not to streusel The eternal question. Clearly a soft rich dough and jammy baked plums needs little in the way of adornment: Bullock-Prado demands nothing but "one tablespoon raw sugar (or one packet you've pilfered from Starbucks)", and Weiss goes only slightly fancier with melted butter and cinnamon sugar. Henry paints hers with glossy redcurrant jelly, but Konditor and Cook and Schuhbeck both go the whole hog with a gloriously buttery streusel topping that, once tasted, is impossible to reject. If you'd prefer to keep it plain, then a couple of tablespoons of cinnamon sugar and some flaked almonds will be almost as nice. Just not quite. As for accompaniment, I'll let Weiss have the last word: "Whipped cream [is] non-negotiable!" Perfect German plum cake Prep 20 min Prove 1 hr 20 min + Cook 40 min Serves 6-8 200g plain flour 3g quick yeast (or 10g fresh) 30g sugar ¼ tsp salt 120ml lukewarm milk 1 egg yolk 40g butter, melted and left to cool, plus extra to grease 600g ripe plums, preferably a dark oval variety (damsons will need more sugar on top) 30g ground almonds, breadcrumbs or semolina 4 tbsp demerara sugar Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon ¼ tsp ground cinnamon For the streusel topping (optional) 60g flour 45g demerara sugar ¼ tsp salt ¼ tsp cinnamon 50g melted butter, cooled 30g almonds, roughly chopped Grease a 22cm or thereabouts loose-bottomed cake tin with butter. To make the dough, put the flour in a mixer with the yeast (if using fresh yeast, you'll need to activate it in the warm milk first), sugar and salt, and mix together. Add the milk, egg yolk and cooled butter, and mix until you have a smooth dough; it will be quite soft, so if you knead it by hand instead, try not to add any more flour than you have to to stop it sticking. Put the dough in the greased tin, cover lightly and leave until it's roughly doubled in size - about an hour, although it may take longer.

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