Lamenting and then savouring summer: A recipePosted on August 26, 2015
Yesterday afternoon, I did something that I haven’t done for months: I pulled a cake out of the oven and set it on top of the stove to cool. It was a simple cake, a fairly basic batter studded with halved plums and showered in brown sugar, but it felt oddly symbolic: plums are an end-of-summer fruit that make their appearance just before the season changes, and the cake itself – the first thing I’d baked in ages – was a celebration of the temperature finally starting to feel cool enough that turning on the oven wouldn’t make the kitchen unimaginably, insufferably hot.
The summer is coming to a close, and if I’m being completely honest I have to say that I am not all that sorry to see it go.
I know this is supposed to be the season that everyone looks forward to all year long then later mourns as it turns into autumn, and I do love the idea of summer, but this particular summer has been difficult. The whole of Italy has been slammed with one intense heatwave after another, heatwaves referred to by menacing names (Caronte, Acheronte) inspired by ancient myths about death and rivers to hell, breaking records since June and keeping temperatures hovering uncomfortably close to 40°C for weeks on end. This, I think, does not quite fit with the relaxed and carefree image of summer that most people have – it is fairly difficult to feel carefree when the sun beating down on your shoulders feels like it could easily fry the skin right off of them.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about a car actually melting in a coastal town in Northern Italy – there are photos of the plastic trim sort of sliding and dripping off the side of the car in large gobs and pooling on the ground around it – and it was shocking (I always imagined that cars would be designed to withstand more than a heatwave) but also not exactly surprising. Hours earlier, I had walked along a sidewalk that had gone gummy and soft after a day of direct sunlight, my sandals sticking slightly to the asphalt as they left behind a trail of faint footprints.
Even the mornings, normally cool and pleasant, have been clammy and hot this year. Early one morning, with the sun still below the horizon, I swung open the living room windows in an attempt to get rid of the warm, stagnant air in the apartment. The air outside the window was the exact same temperature as the air inside. I sat down on the floor and cried, my back pressed against the metal radiator under the window, the only cool surface in a sea of unrelenting heat.
The days I spent in grey-skied, chilly Ireland for a friend’s wedding at the end of July came at exactly the right time – week after week of barely tolerable temperatures had left me lethargic and uninspired, slow-moving but quickly annoyed by the smallest of issues. It was a wonderful relief to feel rain on my skin, to sleep with a blanket over me and to have to pull on a jacket before heading outdoors. I’m sure, given even just a bit more time, I’d find reasons to complain about a summer that felt more like winter. But those few days were a sort of mental reset; a required cooling period before jumping back into summer.
Returning to Rome, which is normally something I love, was terrible. As I stepped out of the plane, haven of dry, icy air that it was, there was a moment of honest confusion: Why was the air damp? What part of the plane’s engine could possibly be giving off such an intense, heavy heat? Comprehension was quick to set in. In the taxi back to the apartment, the driver kept flicking the windshield wipers on and off despite a perfectly clear sky; whenever the air conditioning was turned on, he explained, so much condensation would form outside that it was impossible to see where he was going.
Near the beginning of August, the month when stores and businesses close up en masse and the city transforms into a sun-baked ghost town while everyone leaves for an extended summer vacation that flies directly in the face of the North American work ethic, Alessandro and I headed to the little town of Ovindoli, in Abruzzo, where we stayed with friends of his for a few days. It felt like we were escapees: Ovindoli, nestled into the mountains, was significantly cooler than Rome and allowed us to engage in previously unfathomable activities like preparing and eating hot food, going on walks without sweating, and sitting in direct sunlight. When we drove back into Rome, just in time for the holiday of Ferragosto, the city was finally, finally starting to cool off.
It takes so little – a temperature a few degrees lower, the slightest hint of a cool breeze, just a touch less humidity – for my perception of summer to change entirely. Now, with just a few days left before September, I’m starting to savour the season.
End-of-Summer Plum Cake
This cake is perfect for those last few days of August, when mountains of plums – especially prune plums, the ones that seem tailor-made for baking – start showing up in the market. Although this cake is quite humble-looking, it’s also delicious: The plums sort of sink into the batter and then bake into pudding-like pockets, and the whole thing gets sprinkled with a generous spoonful (or two!) of brown sugar that melts into a thin, crunchy layer.
This recipe is adapted very closely from the recipe for Late Summer Plum Cake on Food52 – I’ve included a spoonful each of cardamom and cinnamon since they go so well with the bold flavours of the plums, and I swapped in a half-cup of whole-grain spelt flour, less for nutrition reasons than for the wonderful nutty taste that it has. I also decided against layering plums in the middle of the cake, as it seemed as though the plum-to-batter ratio would have resulted in a very wet cake. The original recipe also says that the cake serves eight people, but clearly none of those people are capable of eating as much plum cake as I am.
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup whole-grain spelt flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher (or sea) salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened unsalted butter, plus more for pan
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
- 6 medium prune plums, ripe but not too soft, cut in half lengthwise with the pit removed
Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C) and position the rack in the lower third. Line a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper, then lightly butter the parchment.
Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom and cinnamon to a bowl. Whisk together and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a handheld mixer), beat together the butter and the granulated sugar on medium until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs one by one, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl afterwards. Mix in the sour cream, lemon zest and vanilla, and continue mixing until well-combined.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix on low speed until just combined.
Spread the batter evenly in the pan (it will be quite thick) and then top with the plum slices, cut side facing up, pushing them partway down into the batter. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the cake.
Bake until the cake is golden, about 50 – 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the centre (not in a plum) comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before inverting the cake onto a plate to release from the pan, then inverting the cake again onto a serving plate. Serve slightly warm.