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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Brown Butter, Salted Caramel Corn

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If you’ve ever been a tourist in Chicago, you’ve probably walked down State Street and noticed the smell of Garrett popcorn wafting through the air. (If you resisted stopping in to buy some, good for you, you’re a better person than most.) And while Garrett popcorn has been around for a long time, since 1949, caramel corn got its start in Chicago much earlier.

Frederick Rueckheim, originally from Germany, began making candy in Chicago shortly after the Great Chicago Fire. A few years later, his brother, Louis, joined him in Chicago. The two of them combined molasses-coated popcorn with peanuts to create a successor to the colonial treat of kettle corn, and the snack was officially presented to the public at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. (It should also be mentioned that the first popcorn machine, invented by Charles Cretors, was also debuted at the World’s Fair. His system unified the popping process, automating a job that was historically done by hand, and allowing popcorn sellers total mobility, which no doubt helped the Rueckheims.) Rueckheim trademarked the name Cracker Jack in 1896, and the same year an article about his new product appeared in the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “Do Not Taste It. If You Do You Will Part With Your Money Easy.” In the early 1900s, the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” namechecked Cracker Jack, which had already become a staple at Major League Baseball games.

For this year’s National Caramel Popcorn Day, I decided to use a family recipe and make my mom’s caramel corn. (The alternative title for this post could be “Mom’s Super-Simple, Completely Addictive Caramel Corn.”) I remember, as a child, thinking that this recipe was the worst because after my mom poured caramel over the popcorn, I should have immediately been allowed to eat it. Instead, it had to bake for an hour. An hour! That’s like 4 days in Kid Time.

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Brown Butter, Salted Caramel Corn

Ingredients:
About 5 cups popped popcorn (About 3/4 or 1 cup, un-popped)
12 tbsp, unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt, plus 1/2 tsp more sea salt for sprinkling
1/2 tsp baking soda

Instructions:

Pop your popcorn and add to a large bowl. If the popcorn fills your bowl completely, use two bowls. You will want enough room in the bowl to be able to stir in the caramel.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.

Add the butter to a saucepan and place on the stove over medium heat. Allow the butter to heat thoroughly. It will begin to sizzle and smoke a bit. It will turn a deep yellow color, before it turns into a light to medium brown. Turn off the heat.

Add the brown sugar, water, and 1/2 tsp salt to the saucepan and place over medium heat. At first, you will notice that the butter and water are separating. Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to a slight boil. At this point you should see that the mixture is coming together. Stir for about 10 seconds while boiling, before turning off the stove.

Remove from heat and add in the baking soda and stir together. You will see the mixture foaming up and increasing in volume slightly.

Pour the mixture over your popcorn in the bowl. (If using two bowls, divide the mixture.) Stir together until the popcorn is covered by the caramel.

Spread out on one large cookie sheet, or two smaller cookie sheets. The caramel corn doesn’t have to be single layer, but it shouldn’t be piled up too far past the sides of the cookie sheet.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring the popcorn every 15 minutes. After the popcorn has baked for an hour, and is still warm, sprinkle the remaining sea salt over the top evenly.

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Salty and sweet, with a little crunch. You will probably be like me as a child and ask yourself, “Why do I need to bake this? The popcorn is now covered in caramel. It’s ready!” But, trust me. Baking it toasts everything together and gives the caramel a deeper flavor. Your patience will be rewarded. So easy. And a great snack. Word to the wise: Do not make this popcorn while you’re alone in the house. Rookie mistake. There you’ll be, standing at the oven, eating handfuls of warm caramel corn off the cookie sheet. This is only OK if you have somehow managed not to eat handfuls each time you stirred it during baking…if that’s possible to avoid. I did not test that part of these instructions.

It’s great to have a bowl of it around for a dinner party, or, if you can resist eating all of it yourself while it’s baking, it’s also a great little gift to give. Package it up pretty and make your friends think you worked all day on it. (If you have children, they will think this anyway.) Happy snacking!