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.

Serves 6

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.


countrygirlcityliving said...

I just found your site courtesy of Farmgirl Fare and am so thrilled to see a fellow NY foodie writing about such similar things, albeit a fairly pale comparison from your stunning recipes to my bucolic ones.

I must admit that I'm afraid to continue my blog when I see the beautiful work that you are doing!

In any case, I will definitely be coming back :)

Happy healthy, local, eating to you!

countrygirlcityliving said...

p.s. is there a difference between torta and clafouti? i was looking at my recipe for clafouti and could not place the difference!

tribecachef said...

Another great pairing!

Paola said...

This recipe looks delicious. I really love your blog and have added it to my list of favorites.


Figs Olives Wine said...

Countrygirlcityliving, I really look forward t checking out your blog! The name alone says so much, and I can't wait to see what you do. As for proper, traditional clafouti, it's basically pancake batter (you can check out my rhubarb clafouti in the May archives if you want). That means less sugar and the addition of milk. Torta is cake, and this one is made with a classic sponge cake's proportions.

Tribecachef, thank you! I'm so glad you like the pairing - I do too!

Paola, thank so much! I'm so glad you like the cake, and I'll be sure to check out your blog too.

Caty said...

It looks beautiful!

Rose said...

Amanda, I love what you did with the plums. A nice way to celebrate them. I am intrigued though by the name of this "torta", I always thought torta means a tart and this is more like a cake. I am confused but still charmed.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Caty, thank you so much! I'm so pleased that you like the recipe.

Rose, thanks! You know, "torta" is one of those words that means more than one thing. It does often refer to tarts, both savory and sweet, but it also translates directly as "cake." A basic chocolate cake, for example, is called "torta al cioccolato."

Anh said...

This is a great way to bake with plums. And i can't wait to get my hands on them when plum season begins here. Last year, the plums weren't as good and its season was brief. I am hoping (and praying hard) that this year will be better!

Lucy said...

Ground cardamom and plums - how divine.

Terry B said...

First, thank you for the wonderful history of the spice trade! That spices were deemed worth silver and gold speaks to the power of cooking and eating well.

The torta looks and sounds delicious! It reminds me of a flavorful, not too sweet plum cake my wife bakes when prune plums are in season.

Gloria said...

So nice your Plum torta!!! I love plum's jam too.Looks delicious.xxxGloria

winedeb said...

Just in the grocery store yesterday and noticed that there were lots of plums to choose from, even down here! I am not a super sweet dessert person. So I shy away from a lot of sugary types of desserts. But yours seems a bit more suttle and satisfying. A weekend project!

Cynthia said...

What an exquisite torta. I can just imagine the taste and flavour of the cardamom along with the sweet juicy plums. Big time yummy.

Mercedes said...

Ah, don't you love that Cifford Wright book, it's just wonderful! And cardamom is one of my favorite spices to use in sweet things. The influence of all that sweet arabic coffee spiced with cardamom, I guess.

kathryn said...

What a glorious torta. And thanks for the excellent potted history of cardamon. It's one of my favourite spices and I love all that history stuff about the spice trade

Figs Olives Wine said...

Anh, thank you! I wonder why it wasn't a good season last year? How frustrating! Though plum season always feels short to me. I don't get as saturated with the fruit as I do with apricots and peaches for some reason - much as I love them too. I'll keep my fingers crossed for a good harvest this year!

Lucy, thank you! It's a pairing I really enjoy too.

Terry, I'm so glad you enjoy the history as much as I do! You wouldn't believe the mark ups that those Venetian spice merchants got away with. And I do like that this dessert is not too sweet - your wife and I must think alike!

Gloria, thank you! Plum jam is such a treat too, isn't it? I shall have to make some before our plums are gone. Thanks for the reminder!

Winedeb, wonderful! Sounds like you've got great access to seasonal fruit and veg there - though I know how much you miss your farmer's markets. I like a very subtle sweetness too - no need to mask such gorgeous fruit.

Cynthia, thank you so much! I'm so pleased you like the recipe.

Mercedes, his work is incredible isn't it. Very interesting guy. You know centuries ago in the Mediterranean, they believed that coffee was soothing and could deaden virility. So they adopted the eastern practice of putting cardamom in the coffee to counteract that.

Kathryn, thanks so much! I'm really glad you enjoy the history as much as I do.

Gloria said...

Figsolives you are a master!!! I think is so easy for you make plum jam (is so delicious) use the same for these torta because the colour is fantastic, I let at the night with sugar in a big stewpot (olla) and the next morning I put at slow heat and mix all the time, for while I make things at the kitchen, you know how is. I don't peel them I think don't necessary, but you choose.The last summer I make and some people thinking that were of Strawberry (for the colour) My favorite is the apricot, I wait for the summer.xxxGloria

Erika of Sweet Pea Blog said...

I too just found your site and have really enjoyed reading your informative posts and the lovely photos. I have recently been using more cardamon in my cooking... in fact i just made panacotta with it the other day, and as plums have been taking over my kitchen for the last few weeks, I am on the hunt for new ideas! It is funny as we would have crossed paths soon anyway as to too have participated in #35 SHF :)
Please drop by my blog

Tea said...

This looks lovely!
I'm never sad to see the plums at the market, because I enjoy them so. I'm just sad to see them leave the market! I hope I can still find some this week...

Figs Olives Wine said...

Gloria, thanks for the vote of confidence! I love the color too, and I really appreciate the recipe!!!

Erika, I'm so glad that you found the blog! Cardamom panna cotta sounds absolutely divine - especially for this time of year. Really looking forward to checking out your site!

Tea, me too! They're one of the few things I can never get enough of. We had a pergola in Scotland that was covered with old plum vines down one side. The fruit dropped down on the path below and my sister and I feasted. I guess you never get over your first love!

marisa said...

I love all this information on spices. Beautiful torta too.

Gloria said...

Dear figsolives I only talk you how I make the jam, I am sure you have a really good recipe, but you are so nice, this is one of my favorite's blogs.xxxGloria

Wendy said...

So very very pretty.
I adore cardamon. It reminds me of winter in Scandinavia. Or of the spectacularly good cardamon and white chocolate mousse recipe in one of Nigel Slater's books!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Marisa, thanks! I'm so glad you like, because I'm a bit of a history geek myself!

Gloria, I'm really so pleased you like the site! Thanks again.

Wendy, thank you. Why the winter in Scandinavia? I'd love to know. Is it popular in winter baking there? I must find that Nigel Slater recipe - it sounds ridiculously good! Ridiculously!

Tisha said...

Hmm, I'm not sure I agree that spices were never used to disguise the taste of meat. Perhaps spices were used only for flavor in Europe, where they were prohibitively expensive unless used in the tiniest quantities, but I've had meals in Sri Lanka that would make your hair stand on end. As much as I love spicy curries, it is really hard to taste the underlying food with the heat cranked up that high. And if you consider that chilies, cumin, coriander and turmeric all have antibacterial properties, and that refrigeration is a rarity in tropical heat, it would made sense to use spices in this way.

Great Big Veg Challenge said...

This looks lovely. Cardamon and plums sounds like a perfect combination.
Our Autumn is here in London. The leaves are brown and swirling off the trees. It is raining and we have just turned on the central heating.
Come to London for autumn!
Charlotte and Freddie

Benny said...

yummy, 'manda!! i want some...

David Hall said...

I loved that story so much, I told the whole family. I'm not sure if they were as interested as me. But I find it so fascinating that there was once a time when a spice was as valuable, if not more, than a piece of gold or amber. Now, you can pop down to Asda and buy a jar of turmeric for 44pence. It beggars belief! Fab recipe too, I love plum cake but this, paired with cardamon, heaven. Amazing, thanks.


Wendy said...

There's a Finnish sweet bun called pulla and it is flavoured with cardamon. I used to eat them with super-strong coffee in winter time when I lived there. :)
Might try to make them this winter!

bea at la tartine gourmande said...

This is a great association of flavors, and educational story.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Tisha, interesting point. I suppose I was thinking more about how spices were being used in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, but it is interesting to know how they are used elsewhere. Thanks for your comment.

Charlotte & Freddie, how I would love to come to London right now!! The heat just won't quit here, and it sounds so beautiful and cozy over there. Please go out and scuff about in some leaf piles for me!

Benny, you're such a love that I will make you anything you want! One plum cake, coming up!

David, hahaha! Your whole family is right now cursing my existence! But isn't it fascinating? The most valuable and closely watched price fluctuations were those of black pepper and ginger. And the mark ups by Venetian merchants were insane. I'm so glad you like the food history too. Thanks so much!

Wendy, sounds absolutely invigorating and delicious! What a fabulous combination the cardamom in the pastry and the strong coffee must be. Cardamom was traditionally used to flavor coffee - still is in some Arab countries. You must make pulla when it gets cold enough. I'd love to see them and try them myself! Thanks so much for getting back to me about that.

Bea, thanks so much! I'm so pleased you like!

Ilva said...

Wonderful photos, I love the atmosphere in them. and as a cardamom lover I cannot resist the torta!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Ilva, thank you so much! I love cardamom too - especially in the cooler months for some reason.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

you know how much I love cardamom Amanda! I bet it is wonderful with the plum taste!

Meg said...

My kids and I made this with plums from our tree, and it was lovely. Your outline of cardamom's history in the Mediterranean was interesting to read through, since although I've long enjoyed it in baked goods, they seem, often, to be baked goods with a Scandanavian heritage (although I live in Seattle, where a local high school used to have a cheer involving lutefisk). Anyway, thanks.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Jenn, I did learn that about you with the gorgeous buns you just made! Cardamom is so lovely in baked goods this time of year, isn't it? So glad you like the cake.

Meg, a cheer involving lutefisk sounds too good to miss - how fabulous!!! I'm so pleased you guys made the cake and enjoyed it! I think cardamom is used in the baked goods of northern Europe these days far more than in the south, as you say. As far as the Mediterranean goes, the spice is far more popular now in the southern and eastern Mediterranean than it is in Spain, France, Italy, even Greece. But you still see it used - particularly in sweets - and it's a culinary tradition that I for one really enjoy!

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