Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Cardamom Plum Torta - a Recipe
When the Mediterranean spice trade sparked into high gear during the 13th century, the prices of spices were as volatile as our financial markets are today. The Middle Ages saw spices used in Mediterranean cookery as never before – even by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. And contrary to popular belief, spices were not used to mask the taste of rotting meat or to preserve food for leaner months.
As Clifford Wright notes in his magnificent tome A Mediterranean Feast, most recipes of the day called for spices to be added at the very end of cooking, when they would enhance flavor rather than cover unpleasant tastes. After the Black Death, when some areas (including northern Italy) lost over 50% of their population, there was an abundance of fresh meat available – especially for the classes who could afford to buy spices. And there were far cheaper and more practical techniques for preserving food at the time, including air or sun-drying, salting, and smoking.
So the order of the day was flavor. Ships set out from the major port cities of Venice and Marseilles groaning with copper bars, gold and silver coins, wool, silk, coral, amber, and paper; and they returned laden with spices, sugar, sandalwood, and anything else that held the exotic allure of the East.
Cardamom came to the region from India via the markets of Damascus, and by the 1500s, the spice was wildly popular in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, where its intensely aromatic qualities were touted as much for pharmaceutical use (including virility enhancement) as for flavoring food.
The region still favors the spice in sweets, and I’ve paired it here with some of the season’s last plums. Though, as I peer at the hot, humid avenue below and edge ever closer to the air conditioner, I long for our autumn to begin in earnest, plums – sweet, juicy, and bursting with tart-floral flavor - are something I’m always sad to see go from the markets. This torta, touched with fragrant cardamom to bring out the fruit's earthiness and lightly caramelized on top by the time it comes out of the oven, is one way I’ve been celebrating plum season's final days until next July.
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
4 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
4 oz. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp good vanilla extract
4 oz. all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
4 – 5 black or red plums (depending on size), halved and pitted
Preheat the oven to 350 F
Line the bottom of a 9” springform pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides of the pan with melted butter.
Cream together the butter and the sugar in a food processor until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to fully combine. Then add the vanilla.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt. Add to the liquid ingredients and stir until barely combined. Do not over mix.
Spread the cake batter over the base of the springform pan. Arrange the plum halves, cut side down, on top of the batter (see photo above). There is no need to press them down.
Bake in the center of the oven for 30 – 40 minutes until a wooden skewer comes out clean. Cool on a rack before loosening the sides with a knife and removing from the pan. Store in an airtight container.