I’m so focused on searching for an obscure ingredient, one that you might only find under the tail feather of a Taiwanese Toucan, that I’ve been overlooking the ones right in front of me.
During my weekly stroll through the farmers’ market, I honed in on plums.
I know. I know. You’re saying, “PLUMS?! Really?”
I can remember my grandmother always having them at her house in New York. You know, the commercial kind.
But last year, my partner in cuisine crime practically did a backflip when he saw the little, golf ball-sized variety at a farmers’ market. I can remember thinking, whoopty-doo, plums! Then he explained to me that the small, fresh ones are popular here in the South. He grew up eating them. They look nothing like the dark purple-skinned ones embedded in my memory.
The skin pops, the juice runs down your chin, and the flesh (if ripe) looks like it belongs on Dorothy’s feet (after she crushes the Wicked Witch of the East).
They’re pretty easy to find right now, but one farmer told me her crop was just about done. So if you see ‘em, grab ‘em.
Did you know that a plum is a drupe? Even if you did, it’s still fun to say drupe, isn’t it?
Drupes have a thin skin, a thick (usually fleshy) middle layer, and a pit in the center.
You have to be careful with these suckers. They may seem soft enough to be sweet, but then you open one and it’s still yellow. One bite makes one of your eyes twitch like you licked a lemon. They can also hold onto their pits in a grasp fit only for a pearl or a winning lottery ticket.
To cut them up, use a paring knife to slice all the way around the plum as if following the equator. Then, twist the sides in different directions like an Oreo cookie. You may be able to pull out the pit. If not, carve around it with the tip of the knife and pop it out. Then use the halves or cut them into slices or quarters.
I think they’d be great atop oatmeal or spread out on a salad.
But I think a trip to the oven really brings out their natural sweetness. The heat softens the skin and caramelizes the sugars.
The red, golden orange, and yellows are just too pretty to bury in a pie.
So I went with a tart.
Because I’m a perfectionist or a masochist or just insanely stubborn, I did this twice.
The first time, I paired lemon with the plums by adding zest to the crust. I also used a mixture of brown and regular sugar.
This tart looked lovely. I mean, the pattern was mesmerizing. But if I’m being honest with you, dear reader, the plums weren’t very ripe, the brown sugar just wasn’t sweet enough, and the lemon zest intensified the tartness of the fruit. It was good, but not great. If it weren’t for vanilla ice cream and its sweet creaminess, this would’ve been a sad situation. It was just too tart for my liking.
And while plums and lemons (or citrus in general) go well together, the plums have to be really ripe for it to work.
There I went, back to the cutting board, tail between my legs.
Round two was a rock star.
I lost the lemon, used all regular sugar, added almond extract to the crust, and added vanilla extract to the plums. I also cut back on the amount of flour used to thicken the fruit juices, and I added a topping for some extra comfort.
These tarts were inspired by The Barefoot Contessa’s tarts.
She called for a spring-form pan instead of a tart pan. This is brilliant. The only tart pan I have is ceramic. The bottom doesn’t come off, so you have to be a ninja warrior to get a slice out without mangling it. The spring-form pan is more common and more versatile, hello cheesecake and brownies.
I have two: a round one and a square one.
For the first tart I used the round one. The bottom crust seemed as if it had been welded to the pan.
For the second tart I used the square pan. The crust didn’t hold on for dear-life, and I had a perfect slice every time. The big difference wasn’t the shape, it was the material. My square pan is dark and non-stick. The round one is crappy metal. I’m getting rid of it. Stupid thing. Anyway…
The square pan is 9 inches. Anything larger will be slightly too big for this recipe. Just FYI.
Here’s what you need for the tart:
16 plums, pitted and quartered
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. almond extract
1 tbsp. ice water
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
4 tbsp. cold butter cut into cubes
Pinch of kosher salt
A few sprinkles of cinnamon
Here’s how you do it:
In a large bowl, combine the filling ingredients. Stir, and let sit while you get everything else going.
Preheat the oven to 350.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the stick of butter and the sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the almond extract. Mix for a few seconds.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking powder.
With the mixer on low, slowly add in the dry ingredients. Mix until small sandy pebbles form. Keep an eye on this. You’ll go from pebbles to clay quickly.
Then, with the mixer on low, drizzle in the ice water. Let it mix for a few seconds until you get solid pebbles.
Butter and flour your pan.
Push the dough onto the bottom and an inch up the sides. You’ll have to stretch it and pat it down pretty well. It’ll feel like you don’t have enough, but you do.
Give the plum mixture one more stir, then arrange the slices in a pattern on the dough. Then, pour in the remaining liquid.
In the last few minutes of baking, make the topping. Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse till combined. Add the butter and pulse till you get pebbles. Then, squeeze the pieces together to make it all stick.
Once the tart’s been baking for 35 minutes, drop on the topping, then continue baking for 25 minutes.
What’s odd is that this almost tasted like a cherry pie. The fruit was rich, a little tart, but definitely sweet. The almond in the crust really highlighted the plum, and may be responsible for the cherry-like flavor. You get a little bit of the warmth from the cinnamon and vanilla.
We didn’t miss the lemon.
This version didn’t need the ice cream, but we added some anyway. Why not?
Tip: Try grilling plums. Cut in half, remove the pit, sprinkle the flesh with sugar and grill face down. The sugar should caramelize. You’ll get grill marks, and the fruit will soften. Serve it over ice cream, or use it as a topping for crostini smeared with a cinnamon-mascarpone cream.