Zwetschgendatschi or German Plum Cake

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I first heard of Zwetschgendatschi when NPR did a Found Recipes piece on pastry chef and author Gesine Bullock-Prado (also the sister of Sandra Bullock). Bullock’s father was American, but her mother Helga was a German opera singer. She talks about how difficult it was for her to make this cake after her mother died. It was powerful to read this, and I have seen something similar while collaborating with ladies on this blog about their own family recipes: Sometimes sharing is easy for them, they’re excited to share, and excited to talk about their family dish, but sometimes it’s very difficult. Memories are baked into food and can bring up surprising emotions if you’re not ready for them.

This particular dish, Zwetschgendatschi, is sometimes called “Summer Cake.” The cake is traditionally made with Damson plums, which are tiny, dark purple, oblong plums that only ripen for a few weeks a year around August. This plum is slightly more tart than most plums you will find in the grocery store.

When made in sheet cake form, it is more pie or tart than cake. An alternate version calls for a yeast dough with no streusel on top. Whichever recipe is used can give you a good idea where someone is from in Germany. In parts of Central Germany it is known as Quetschekuche, while in the western region it’s known as Prummetaat, and in Bavaria or Austria it is more often known as Zwetschgendatschi. The people in Augsburg, in Bavaria, claim to be the creators of the recipe. The city’s nickname is “Datschiburg” in reference to the cake, and the arrangement of the plums on top of the cake are said to resemble the pine cone on the city’s coat of arms. Their version uses a shortbread crust, which is what I used here.

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Zwetschgendatschi
Makes one 8″ tart. Slight variation on this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed and very cold (1 1/2 sticks)

For filling:
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
About 10-14 small-to-medium plums (Damson, or Italian Prune Plums)

For topping:
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Whisk together the egg yolk, whole milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a food processor, or large bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If using a food processor, add the butter to the bowl and process until the butter pieces are a bit smaller than pea-sized. If using a bowl, cut the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg yolk mixture slowly. Process or mix with your hands until the mixture just begins to stick together. It will still appear crumbly.

Pour out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the mixture together, kneading until all the dry parts are combined. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pits from the plums, and quarter. Set aside.

Using your fingertips, press the dough into a 8-inch tart pan. Reserve a golf ball sized portion of the dough to sprinkle over the top.

Arrange the plum quarters over the top of the tart. Crumble the remaining dough and sprinkle over the top.

Mix together the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the top of the plums.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the plums are very tender.

Allow to cool completely and then enjoy!

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This cake can be made with other varieties of plums, but make sure they are not overly ripe, which would make them very sweet and too juicy. Italian prune plums are a good alternative to Damson plums, if you can find them. (Prune plums are what I used for this recipe.) I relied on the recipe given by NPR, but I did find a recipe in a newspaper from the 1980’s that suggested adding a little nutmeg and cinnamon to your sugar mixture to sprinkle over the top, and that seemed like a heck of an idea. While it looks a little oozy in the photos above, that does not do it justice. The smooth, buttery shortbread crust holds up wonderfully against the juicy fruit.

I hate to tell you this, but summer is almost over. Now is the time for summer cake! Do it for the season.

One final thought: It always seems strange to be writing about food with everything happening in the world. I’m baking and researching history as a way to work through and try to understand what’s going on in our country, and how I can help. I’m mad, and appalled, and disappointed. We owe so much to the diversity that built this nation. Every recipe that I feature on this site is influenced by countries and peoples from around the world. I have said before that I wish to generally keep politics off this food history blog–it’s supposed to be fun and delicious, you know. However, humanity is not political, and this argument is not about liberals or conservatives, it’s about our fellow humans. We are all equal. It seems elementary to say but, it turns out, some people still don’t understand the concept. If you don’t agree, I don’t expect any of my posts about border-crossing recipes to make any sense to you. For everyone else: Let’s bake together.

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Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts

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Picture this: It’s the first week of summer vacation. I am a scrawny kid, probably 80 lbs., soaking wet, likely wearing uneven, homemade jean cut-off shorts and an oversized Marlboro shirt that my dad got when he bought a carton of cigarettes (don’t smoke!). More than likely barefoot and even more likely, eating Pop-Tarts. That was me, every summer, from approximately 1993 to 1998.

Alex and I stopped by my hometown on our way to and from a wedding in Cleveland on Memorial Day weekend, which was bringing up all kinds of warm feelings. On Memorial Day weekend, if I were 11 again, I would have been running around in my friends’ back yards, with all of the other neighbor kids, until the very last second before the sun went down. Then my dad would yell my name or, more likely, my nickname out the backdoor and it would be time to come in for the night. It was making me all nostalgic for childhood and, of course, Pop-Tarts.

For the most part, I try to lead a healthy life. I work out, I eat lots of vegetables, and yes, I make a lot of desserts for this blog, but for the most part, but I usually end up giving a lot of what I make away (after I taste it of course–quality control, you know). On top of that, I really try to avoid eating too many overly-processed foods now, which is a real struggle for me. Being a 90’s kid from small town Indiana means that I am, as my friend Kristina puts it, “90% Ecto Cooler and other preservatives.” For example, nowadays, I never buy Pop-Tarts, even though I love them so much.

Incidentally, the Pop-Tarts that we know and love may never have been. In early 1963, Kellogg’s competitor, the cereal company Post, had announced a plan to release a new breakfast item called Country Squares. However, Post was still months away from releasing their item, which allowed Kellogg to swoop in and develop their own version. In their attempt to best their competitor, Kellogg reached out to Keebler, the famous cookie makers, to create a quick breakfast that could be heated in the toaster.

Perhaps we owe our greatest debt to Bill Post, a plant manager at Keebler during this time who was tasked with creating a toastable treat. (Bill Post appears to have no relation to the Post corporation, but I’m looking into whether there’s a cereal gene in the Post family.) He tested out versions, originally called “fruit scones,” on his children and they were a hit. Pop-Tarts were first tested in markets in Cleveland at the end of 1963. People loved them and they were released to the general public in 1964. They were unfrosted at the time, and only came in four flavors: blueberry, apple-currant, brown sugar cinnamon, and (my personal favorite) strawberry. A few years later, after Bill Post convinced executives that there was a way to create a toaster-safe frosting, frosted versions were made available.

Though I might not buy Pop-Tarts anymore, my cravings for warm, frosted, strawberry goo-filled treats have not diminished. Especially in the summer. I don’t know what it is. So, I made my own version at home.

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Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts
Makes about 10 2 1/2 x 4-inch tarts.

Ingredients:

For the crust (using this recipe):
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
9 tbsp (1 stick, plus 1 tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1/4 cup-1/3 cup very cold water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
Egg wash, optional:
1 egg
1 tsp water

For the filling:
1 cup fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
1-2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp vanilla

For the glaze:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1-2 tsp milk

Colored sugar or sprinkles, optional

Instructions:

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Briefly pulse to mix. Add cold, cubed butter and process again until small clumps form, about 5-7 seconds. Add in 1/4 cup of water and apple cider vinegar. Pulse for an additional 5 seconds to combine. If the dough is still dry, add cold water one tablespoon at a time, not exceeding 1/2 cup.

On a well-floured surface, pour out the contents of the food processor. Gather the mixture, separate into two piles and form a disc out of each pile. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour, preferable overnight.

In a saucepan, combine strawberries, water, cornstarch, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is boiling. Boil for about 15 minutes. Lower the heat and continue to cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the pie dough. The pie crust should be quite thin, only about 1/8-inch thick, but you shouldn’t be able to see through the crust. You should be able to get about 10 rectangles from each disc, if you cut them 2 1/2 x 4-inches.

Place each rectangle on two large parchment paper-covered baking sheets. Spoon about one tablespoon of the cooled strawberry mixture into the middle of 10 of the rectangles. Place an empty rectangle over the top, carefully pressing down the edges. Then, seal the edges with the tines of a fork. Continue until all 10 tarts are filled. If using an egg wash, beat together one egg, with one teaspoon of water. Using the same fork, poke several holes into the top of each tart. Brush egg wash lightly on each tart.

Bake for 30 minutes, turning the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

Mix together the powdered sugar, vanilla, salt, and milk in a small bowl. Spoon one teaspoon of glaze over each cooled tart. Sprinkle with colored sugar or sprinkles, if desired.

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No, they’re not healthy per se. They are basically made from butter and sugar, but I guess you’re replacing the high-fructose corn syrup? Pick your poison, I suppose. I also don’t feel bad about not buying Pop-Tarts because their sales have increased every year since they were introduced. There are plenty of latchkey kids out there, like I was, looking for an easy snack. Then those kids become adults and say, “No, I’m too good for Pop-Tarts, I’ll make my own.” But they’ll secretly have a moment of yearning, every time they walk by them at the grocery store. Or, so I’ve heard…