Every time I make this cake and serve it I always get something along the line “My mother makes / used to make a cake just like that!” It seems that every Jewish mother of Easter European decent has her own version or twist on this classic. And why not? It is simple, fast, feeds a lot of people ( impossible to make a small pan of this), can be made with any seasonal fruit and generally uses we always have in our pantries… However for me this cake serves a very different purpose…It is one of the ways I choose to honor and remember my Mother.
She was a great cook and even a greater baker. With what little resources she had, she managed to create quite a few baking masterpieces. Not only did her cakes taste good, they were also beautiful. She had quite a talent for decorating, something that I just don’t have the patience for. I used to sit in the kitchen with her for hours, just watching her bake, admiring how she never measured anything, how she just remembered tons of recipes and never had to look things up. She didn’t have any of the fancy tools I have, no standing mixer to whip the whites ( my father used to do it by hand), no gazillion of baking pans, just one old one spring pan that was acquired by some impossible means somewhere abroad the Iron Curtain. Nothing could send my mother into panic faster than when the spring on that pan used to break.
When I got a bit older, probably old enough to crack an egg without spilling it all over the place, she let me make my own little cakes, right along with her big ones. I still remember the proportions for her pound cake by heart and can make it with my eyes closed. She taught me that one should never bake when rushed or upset. It must be done with a light heart and for pure enjoyment otherwise whatever you make will end up in the garbage.
My mother used to make this cake most often with apples or plums, sometimes sour cherries. It is one of those few things that I can make without even thinking about and that always comes out tasting like my childhood. There are these little droplets of sugar fruit syrup that begin to condense on top of the meringue once the cake begins to cool. They were her favorite part and I always taste one just for her!
For the crust:
2 cups all purpose flour
1tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
2 ½ sticks of unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup of sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the filling:
1 lb or a little more of Italian (or prune) plums. Firm but ripe (See note)
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbs of fresh squeezed lemon juice
For the Meringue:
4 egg whites
½ cup of sugar
1/8 tsp of cream of tartar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder and set aside. In the standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment cream the butter and sugar until sugar dissolves and butter is light and whipped. Add the egg and vanilla and mix gently until incorporated. You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on lowest setting, add the flour mixture in 2 or 3 installments. Make sure to incorporate all the flour fully but not over mix, the dough should just come together into a ball. Scrape the dough onto the plastic wrap. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least 40 min.
In the mean time prepare the fruit filling. Pit the plums and cut them in quarters. In a bowl, combine all the fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and lemon juice.
Butter a standard baking sheet ( 15 x12). Take out the refrigerated dough and with the palm of your hand spread the dough evenly on the pan to create a crust. You may need to dust the dough with flour to do this. Keep working it outwards with your fingers until the crust is evenly thick everywhere and the dough comes up all the way to the edges. You will probably end up with a crust no thicker than a one centimeter.
Spread the fruit evenly on top of the crust and bake for about 30 – 35 min or until the crust edges are golden.
When the cake is fully done, take it out of the oven and let cool slightly. In the mean time increase the oven temperature to 425F. Whip the egg whites with cream of tartar until medium peaks. When the medium peaks form, begin adding sugar, a little at a time and whip until all of the sugar is incorporated and the meringue is whipped to very firm peaks.
With a rubber spatula, spread the whipped whites on top of the cake. Since the cake is still hot, the whites will deflate somewhat. Put the topped cake baked in the oven and bake for about another 10 min or until the meringue begins to lightly brown on top. This type of meringue is not dry or crunchy but soft and gentle.
Let the cake cool fully on the cooling rack before serving.
Note: This cake can be made with any fresh fruit. Try apples, sour cherries, apricots or a combination. You can add nuts to the filling as well.