There once was a field planted with orange trees, rows upon rows of orange trees, that soaked up the sun most every day of the year. One large round basin kept a watchful eye, collecting both well and rain water, and letting it go, flooding the fields where the orange trees lived. The trees grew blossoms that perfumed the air, that turned into oranges that hung from the trees, clusters of them, weighing the branches, until harvest, around Christmas time.
Then one day, three houses were built, for three growing families, one dog and some cats, one rabbit, one duck and even turtles once in a while. Some trees had to be cut (not many, just enough for the houses to fit), and life grew in the houses, surrounded by trees, rows upon rows of them.
The children grew up, and the trees grew old, and tired, and refused to give much more of their fruit. Many succumbed and had to be uprooted. Some others survived, the ones closest to the three houses, where the children lived.
The men of the homes had a decision to make, and plum trees were planted where orange trees once grew.
The new trees blanketed the land, as far as the eye could see, shielding the children, and their houses, from the strangers’ curious eyes. In the summer months their branches burst in purple, heavy by the weight of the hanging fruit, waiting to be picked. Plums lay on the counters, on the tables, in the refrigerators of the three families, waiting to be turned into cakes, tarts, sauce, jam, preserves. Trucks would come without notice, sprinkled throughout the summer. The fields would fill up with men carrying baskets, collecting the fruits, that would be loaded into the trucks, and sold worldwide. There were so many plums, for the families and for the world, that the children in the three families grew tired of them. Too many plums.
If I had been told years ago that I would one day be buying plums at the market or at the store, I would not have believed them. I was one of those children that grew up surrounded by orange trees, surrounded by plum trees, fig trees, taking them for granted. Other friends, neighbors, grew almonds in their fields, grape vines, olives, peaches, apricots. Neighbors and friends exchanged the fruits of their land.
Any dessert that involves any of those fruits, but particularly plums and almonds, figs, oranges and lemons, remind me of home, remind me of childhood, remind me of hot summer mornings harvesting them, feet covered in dust, or climbing the colossal branches of the fig trees.
This is an easy enough cake to make, that includes familiar flavors, almonds and plums. Cakes were usually round at home —making this one in a square pan is my personal, and practical, twist. The flavors are just as evocative.
PLUMS AND ALMOND CAKE
Torta de Ciruelas y Almendra
For the crust
1 cup icing sugar
2 cups flour
8 Tbs unsalted butter, diced and chilled
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 Tbs iced water (if necessary)
For the almond paste filling
1/2 cup granulated sugar
8 Tbs butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond essence
1 1/3 cups almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
1/4 cup flour
5 medium plums
Sift the flour and icing sugar into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and vanilla and blend until the mixture become crumbly (alternatively, you can use your fingertips). Add the egg yolks and continue to mix until the dough comes together in a ball. On a floured work surface, shape the ball of dough into a disc and wrap in plastic film . Place in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
In the meantime, make the almond paste. With a mixer, cream the sugar and butter. Add the vanilla, the almond essence and the eggs and mix well. When smooth, add the flour and the almond flour, and mix.
Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
Line a cake pan of approximately 9×13 inches with parchment paper, making sure the paper overhangs at least 1 inch on all sides.
Take the dough out of the fridge and roll onto a floured surface. When rolled out to more or less the size of the cake pan, lift it carefully and place it on top of the parchment paper covered pan. If necessary, once in the pan, roll with a small roller until the dough covers the bottom of the pan and comes about 1 inch up the sides. Place the pan in the freezer for about 20 minutes (this will avoid shrinking when placed in the oven).
Slice the plums into thin slivers (if your plums are very small, you can split them in half). Take the cake pan out of the freezer and spread the almond mixture over the dough. Arrange the slivers of plum over the almond mixture any way you fancy (I like to do it in rows when using a rectangular or square cake pan, and in a spiral if using a circular cake pan). Place the cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the almond paste starts looking golden in color. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a cooling rack. When the cake has cooled down, gently lift it from the pan and dust with confectioners sugar.