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A Sweet Year: Plum Cake for Rosh Hashanah

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plum cake
Photograph by Stephane von Stephane

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this year on Wednesday night. This holiday is a bridge stretched between the past and the future. As I understand it, the two-week period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is a time for personal and spiritual clean-up. You look back at everything you did (or failed to do) during the past year, and you make amends: settle your debts, ask for forgiveness, leave old habits behind.

And to help blow the cobwebs out of your brain, and get you up and ready to do what needs to be done, comes the blast of the shofar, or ram's horn. It's a real ram's horn, blown at the end of the day's services, with a sound that's deeply weird and thrilling. It's rare that any experience comes to us unmitigated across the centuries, much less the millennia. Nothing we eat now tastes like it would have two hundred or even a hundred years ago; cooking methods, animal breeds and plant varieties, even ways of measuring ingredients have all changed and evolved, and while old recipes may give us a sense of how previous generations ate, we'll never know exactly what their bread or their apples tasted like.

Sounds, though, might remain true. A ram's horn is a ram's horn, and when it's blown, the tone rings as Biblical as manna, a tradition that reverberates down through some five thousand years. (By the Jewish calender, the upcoming year is 5771.)

As a lunar holiday, the exact date of Rosh Hashanah moves around from year to year, but it usually falls sometime between early and mid-September. The timing is perfect to fulfill the injunction to eat new fruits, part of a holiday tradition of serving sweet foods to guarantee a sweet year.


Honey, too, is always on the menu at Rosh Hashanah, scooped up with apple slices and used to sweeten round domes of raisin-studded challah bread. With the resurgence of interest in beekeeping, and especially in urban beekeeping, now is the time to find out what your neighborhood tastes like, to a bee. I'm always trying out different local honeys, so on my table this year will be Eggman Family's pomegranate-blossom honey (sold at the Saturday Alemany Farmers' Market in San Francisco) next to the "Marin Mix" honey from Marshall's Farm (widely available at many local grocery stores, as well as the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and the Marin Farmers' Market.)

You can also drop by Saul's in Berkeley next week for Adventures in the Honey Harvest, a panel discussion and local honey tasting with Helene Marshall of Marshall's Farm Honey, Jen Radtke of Biofuel Oasis, which offers classes in urban beekeeping, and Saul's co-owner and home beekeeper Peter Levitt.

Right now, the farmers' markets are rich with the first fruits of autumn. Peaches, melons, and berries still have their allure, but this week my eyes suddenly noticed the plumpness of green and purple late-harvest figs, the golden swell of Bartlett and Asian pears, the red-striped Gravenstein apples, the first pomegranates, and in particular, the amber-skinned Italian sugar plums and dusky indigo French prune plums. These small, oval plums, harbingers of fall, are nothing like summer's juice-dripping flavor bombs made for slurpy out-of-hand eating; instead, their dense, sugary flesh and tart skins are enhanced by baking.

And this simple plum cake shows them off. It's a great family dessert that can easily double as a lazy morning coffee cake. Cinnamon seems to have a nice affinity with plums, but so does cardamom and anise. Adding a little buckwheat flour gives the cake a pleasant heft and nuttiness; you could also replace the white flour completely with whole-wheat pastry flour, or a wheat-free combination of equal parts oat and barley flours.

Not being a fan of traditional honey cake, an upside-down apple gingerbread has been my go-to holiday dessert for quite a while. But with the long-delayed warmth of summer finally upon us, something a little lighter, with the kiss of the last stone fruits upon it, seems to offer the perfect sweetness for the year to come.

Plum Cake
You could also try this with other fruits, such as sliced peaches, sliced poached quinces, or halved fresh figs.

Makes 1 cake, to serve 8

1/2 cup (8 tbsp) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
24 small Italian plums or 12 French prune plums, halved lengthwise and pitted
1 tbsp sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp cinnamon or 1/4 tsp anise seeds


1. Grease and flour a 9" cake pan. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla.

3. In a small bowl, sift together flours, cardamom (if using), baking powder, and salt.

4. Stir half of flour mixture into butter. Add milk and stir gently to mix. Add remaining flour and stir until just smooth. Stir in all but 1 tablespoon of the nuts.

5. Spread batter in prepared pan. Arrange plums, skin side up, in concentric circles over batter. Sprinkle with nuts and cinnamon sugar or sugar and anise seeds.

6. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until cake is slightly puffed and golden brown. Let cool 10-15 minutes, then release from pan and let cool on a rack.

Adventures in the Honey Harvest will be held at Saul's Restaurant & Deli, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, on Sept. 14 from 7-8:30pm. Tickets are $5.

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