A summer cake: plum and ricotta tart
A neighbour’s plum tree hangs over into our courtyard. By a lot. Dark plums, with a matte grey-blue coating a sometimes dark blue, sometimes pinkish-purple skin. Inside they’re sweet yellow, but when picked a little early, like I did to beat the birds (they wait until that crucial moment when the plums are just ripe – somehow they know – then they strip the tree at the blink of an eye before you’ve even had a chance to get out of bed), the flesh is lime green. They’re still good but a little tart, which makes them wonderful for cooking.
The birds had already tasted a few plums. They tend to hang around the tree, waiting and testing a plum here and there, letting them fall to the ground after a few nibbles. But the rest, bittersweet, a little green, were mine.
With my basket of plums, still warm from the late afternoon sun, I considered making jam, then a crostata but quickly got distracted by some plum recipes from Alto Adige, Italy’s far north, found while researching this buckwheat and apple cake for my Food52 column, Regional Italian Food. With half of the fruit, I tried a plum strudel, but need to fine tune the pastry and delicate assembly. With the other half, I couldn’t resist this recipe.
Alto Adige is largely influenced by its neighbours, Austria and Switzerland, and this summer cake is no exception – it’s also a popular German cake. This torta di susine (in German, zwetschgenkuchen), intrigued me for its bread dough-like base, made with ricotta, flour, olive oil and milk (no eggs in the original recipe). As always, I’m drawn to the simplicity of the cake too – mix everything together, arrange the halved plums on top and bake.
Some versions of the cake call for a streusel (a crumble of butter, breadcrumbs and sugar) topping but the more traditional recipe keeps it plain. And it is, after all, a wonderfully plain, simple cake – the dough turns into a bouncy, soft spongy base, while the plums become fall-apart soft and juicy. It can be served with a dusting of icing (powdered) sugar or with a blob of cream, but there is nothing wrong with a plain slice, eaten perhaps next to some black coffee for breakfast, a snack or dessert.
The only laborious part of this recipe is removing the seeds from the plums, but if using ripe plums, it’s quite easy. Slice them in half, twist, and pull the seeds out with your fingers. When a little green, you may need to cut them out.
I’ve made a few small additions to the traditional recipe from Alto Adige, including adding one whole egg and coating the plums in some ground cinnamon (an excellent spice with tart fruit, such as this sour cherry and cinnamon sorbet) and raw sugar. You may like to scent the dough with some vanilla. I skipped the icing sugar as I don’t think it needs to be too sweet, it’s already well-balanced. It’s lovely with thick, plain yoghurt instead of cream too.
Torta di susine (Zwetschgenkuchen)
Plum and ricotta tart
Before starting, make sure you have quite a firm ricotta. If it’s in liquid or if it’s a very moist ricotta, scoop it into some cheesecloth, muslin or even a clean tea towel and hang it over a sieve and let it drain for an hour in the fridge before using.
- 300 gr flour
- 200 gr firm ricotta (see note above)
- 60 gr fine sugar
- 2 tablespoons of baking powder
- pinch of salt
- About 90ml (6 tbs) milk
- About 60 ml (4 tbs) olive oil
- 1 egg, beaten
- About 20 fresh plums
- 2 tbs raw sugar
- 2 tbs ground cinnamon
- butter for greasing
Prepare the dough by combining the flour, ricotta, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Stir in the milk, oil and egg until you have a workable dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more olive oil or milk, a tablespoon at a time. Roll the dough into a ball and rest while you prepare the plums.
Cut the plums in half and remove their seeds. Scatter raw sugar and cinnamon over them and toss until coated.
Roll out the dough to about an inch high to fit your chosen, well-buttered pan (I used a 26 cm/10 inch ceramic pie dish but you can also do this as a rectangular cake, like a sheet cake). Lay the dough in the pan, pushing gently with fingers to even the surface. Lightly press the plum halves, cut side down, into the dough. Bake at 200ºC for 30 minutes or until the plums are soft and cooked and the top golden.