Editor's note: Here are two recipe excerpts from The Essential New York Times Cookbook, including the lively commentary and recipe history from author Amanda Hesser that make this book both a joy and an education to read.
Purple Plum Torte is both the most often published and the most requested recipe in the Times archives. By my count, Marian Burros (who was given the recipe by Lois Levine, with whom Burros wrote Elegant but Easy) ran the recipe in the paper twelve times. And when I asked readers for recipe suggestions for this book, 247 people raved about the torte. The torte happily lives up to its billing: crusty and light, with deep wells of slackened, sugar-glazed plums.
I've thought a lot about why this torte struck such a chord with people: the answer, I think, is that it's a nearly perfect recipe. There are only eight ingredients, all of which, except for the plums, you probably already have in your kitchen. There are just four steps, most of which are one sentence long. You need no special equipment, just a bowl, a wooden spoon and a pan. The batter is like pancake batter, which most everyone is comfortable making. And baked plums are sweet and tart, making the flavor more complex and memorable than a hard-hitting sweet dessert.
It also freezes well.
"A friend who loved the tortes said that in exchange for two, she would let me store as many as I wanted in her freezer," Burros wrote one year when she ran the recipe. "A week later, she went on vacation for two weeks and her mother stayed with her children. When she returned, my friend called and asked, 'How many of those tortes did you leave in my freezer?'
" 'Twenty-four, but two of those were for you.'
"There was a long pause. 'Well, I guess my mother either ate twelve of them or gave them away.' "
In later versions of the recipe, Burros cut back the sugar to 3/4 cup - feel free to if you like - and added variations, such as substituting blueberries or apples and cranberries for the plums (I haven't tried either, but Burros was a fan). She jumped the shark, in my view, though, when she created low-fat variations with mashed bananas and applesauce. While I respect her enthusiasm for innovation, this is one recipe that needs no improvement.
PURPLE PLUM TORTE
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Large pinch of salt
1 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon, or more or less, depending on the tartness of the plums
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
12 purple plums, halved
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or more or less, depending on the tartness of the plums
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt.
2. Cream 1 cup sugar and the butter in a large bowl with a hand mixer (or in a mixer) until light in color. Add the dry ingredients and then the eggs.
3. Spoon the batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan. Cover the top of the batter with the plum halves, skin side up. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar and the lemon juice, adjusting to the tartness of the fruit. Sprinkle with the cinnamon.
4. Bake until the cake is golden and the plums are bubbly, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a rack, then unmold. Serves 8.
Cooking note: I like this best with oval Italian plums, available in early fall.
Craig Claiborne described making the acquaintance of David Eyre's oven-baked pancake, "in the handsome, Japanese-style home of the David Eyres in Honolulu," as if he had met Grace Kelly. "With Diamond Head in the distance, a brilliant, palm-ringed sea below, and this delicately flavored pancake before us, we seemed to have achieved paradise."
Life was good if you were a food writer in the 1960s. Mistakes (Claiborne doubled the butter in his recipe) passed without a public shaming in the paper's corrections column or the blogosphere. A few weeks later, he simply mentioned airily, "The food editor was in such reverie on his return from Hawaii he did not notice the gremlins in his measuring spoons."
Forty years later, readers are still making the pancake with no less bliss. It appears on a dozen blogs, embellished with family stories and photos and new-and-improved versions of the recipe. (Eyre, by the way, said he got his from the St. Francis Hotel Cookbook, published in 1919, but his calls for more flour and egg. Both belong to a family of oven-baked pancakes called German pancakes or Dutch babies.)
What keeps cooks faithful to one recipe is often some confluence of ease and surprise. Eyre's pancake possesses both. A batter of flour, milk, eggs, and nutmeg is blended together, then poured into a hot skillet filled with butter and baked. Anyone confused? I didn't think so.
The surprise comes at the end, when you open the oven door to find a poufy, toasted, utterly delectable-looking pancake. It soon collapses as you shower it with confectioners' sugar and lemon juice, slice it up and devour it. It's sweet and tart, not quite a pancake and not quite a crepe. But lovable all the same.
DAVID EYRE'S PANCAKE
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the flour, milk, eggs, and nutmeg in a bowl. Beat lightly. Leave the batter a little lumpy.
2. Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet with a heatproof handle. When it is very hot, pour in the batter. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the pancake is golden brown.
3. Sprinkle with the sugar and return briefly to the oven. Sprinkle with lemon juice, and serve with jelly, jam, or marmalade. Serves 2 to 4.
Cooking note: Don't overmix the batter, or the pancake will be tough - a few lumps are fine. This is the moment to call your well-seasoned cast-iron skillet into service.