Dispatch from a photoshoot: I’m sitting at the Marc Forgione Restaurant right now, while the book photo shoot is under way. It’s kind of an amazing feeling to see something you’ve worked on for over eight months to be coming together so clearly, so resolutely. The cooks are in the kitchen cooking and plating; the restaurant is buzzing with activity; there’s a photographer, an assistant, a stylist, an editor, just to name a few. And all I think to myself – wow, we’re making a book! We’re making a book! It’s been the hardest and best nine months – like having a baby, it feels, but without any breaks whatsoever.
I’m supposed to be editing, but I’m sneaking in a writing break. In my bag, along with my laptop, book materials and notebook, is Luisa’s wonderful book, My Berlin Kitchen* and a slice of her yeasted plum cake, pflaumenkuchen. I read her book in two days (read: you want this book!) while out on the Cape in Wellfleet a few weeks ago. I look back to that week as a singular bright spot after the wedding. My first vacation since January when the book got its start, and I lifted nary a finger. My computer, usually a workhorse and a mainstay on every single trip we’ve taken, got no use; and instead I read, slept, cooked, and ate. The moment I hit “send” on the computer and sent the manuscript onto the editor, my brain shut down. It was time for some Wellfleets and some beer.
In all respects, has been a challenging summer. Most of it I can’t get into but it has been heartbreaking at time. Often, I’d wake up feeling like my heart had been cleaved in two. There were days when I wanted to put it back together, but didn’t find the strength to. I didn’t let go of the ache and the worry. Instead, I accepted it. I took it in for what it was and tried to make the most of those feelings. There are lessons in everything, I thought. They’re in the details. What are the lessons here? At night, Andrew and I would thank heavens we had one another to lean on – these were some trying times.
But instead of getting stuck in searching for answers, I, instead, chose to get lost in Luisa’s beautiful stories. Honestly written, without being precious, I could hear Luisa telling these stories in her own voice. My heart ached when something sad would happen and I rejoiced when good tidings came her way! And while I knew how the story would end, I was still gripped by the details, by the lessons.
I first met Luisa years ago, after she organized a nice get-together for a few bloggers. There were so few of us back then and now – it’s a medium teeming with new folks. We went to Veselka and I remember talking to Luisa and feeling instantly soothed, like I was talking to an old friend. In many ways, I was in a terrible place in my life. Come to think of it was when I was still living on the Upper East Side eating chocolate pudding for comfort.
Through the years Luisa’s was one of the blogs where I read every word. I learned she hated to fry meatballs – I did too. She roasted rhubarb; and I followed suit. There were soups and stews; cakes and cookies – all delicious. Every story, every recipe – felt familiar, like home. They were filled with kindness and humanity and joy and sorrow. I was sad to learn of her breakup (I had recently went through a pretty bad one myself), and gave her a bunch of my moving boxes since I had just moved myself. I bought a beautiful wall hanging from her as she was packing up to move to Berlin. And I was so elated for her next stage in life, and couldn’t wait what how her story would unfold.
I dog-eared many recipes, and I never, ever, dog-ear my books. I underline, I highlight, I make illegible notes in the margin, but to take a page and physically make a fold, hurts me. But since I was at the beach without my OCD arsenal of highlighters and sticky flags, dog-earing it was.
There was a tomato sauce, poppy seed rolls, a potato salad, just to name a few. But I couldn’t get Pflaufmenkuchen (a yeasted plum cake) out of my mind. Filled, to the brim, with Italian prune plums and dusted with cinnamon sugar, I dreamt for two weeks of the cake, until I was finally able to get into my kitchen to bake.
Yeast doughs take their time. They puff up and need to be deflated and allowed to puff up again. Like old Russian grandmothers, yeast doughs hate drafts. They need patience and a gentle but resolute hand. But, finicky as they are – they are generous in their rewards. The chew and tang of a yeasted dough is unparalleled and seductive.
When the plum cake emerged, bubbling, out of the oven, I had to distract myself until it cooled enough to be sliced. And then my brother-in-law and I helped ourselves to nice, generous slices. By the time we all went to bed, less than half a cake remained. I even had a piece before I headed off to the shoot this morning.
So, Luisa, thank you, for writing this book and sharing it with all of us. Books, especially, memoirs, are the kinds of things that unless you love it and nurture it and really want it to come about, are too much trouble otherwise. Yours is a memoir I’ll cherish on my bookshelf for decades and I’m so lucky in watching your beautiful blog grow and change through the years. I can’t wait for what’s in store for you next. Whatever it is, I know it’ll be filled with beauty, joy, and everything delicious.
*Luisa’s book hits your local book stores on September 17th, or you can order your copy via Amazon today.
Pflaumenkuchen – Yeasted Plum Cake
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen, by Luisa Weiss
Luisa’s original recipe calls for 1/2 ounce fresh yeast – which translates to 1/4 of that if you’re using dry yeast. Since dry yeast is more readily available in the US, I wanted to try to make it a bit more accessible to the US cooks. It worked and I presented the cake for you. I also increased the amount of lemon zest to 1 whole lemon, and halved the amount of cinnamon to 1 teaspoon. And because I can never say no to nutmeg. I added a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg to the mix.
In my next iteration, I’d like to swap out 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour for whole wheat and see where it takes me. It might add some nice heft to the cake. Hurry and up and make this while plums are still in season!
Butter for the pan
1/8 ounce (4 grams) dry yeast
1/2 cup (118 ml) whole milk, lukewarm
1 1/2 cups (189 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (18 grams) all purpose flour, plus more for the dough
6 tablespoons (78 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg yolk
5 tablespoons (71 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 teaspoon salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 pound Italian prune plums, pitted and quartered
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Unsweetened whipped cream, for serving, optional
1. Butter the bottom and sides of the 8-inch springform pan. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the yeast and the half of the milk (59 ml) with a pinch of sugar. Let the yeast dissolve for 5 minutes. You will see tiny bubbles starting to form and the mixture will have a distinctly yeasty smell. Meanwhile, place the flour into a large bowl and make a well in it. When the yeast has dissolved in the milk, pour the yeast mixture into the “well”, cover the bowl with a cotton towel, and let sit for 15 minutes or until the liquid gets foamy. Start to stir and add the remaining milk, 3 tablespoons (39 grams) of sugar, egg yolk, 3 tablespoons (43 grams) of the melted butter, salt, and lemon zest. The dough will be a bit shaggy. Dump it out onto a floured work surface and knead it for a few minutes until it is smooth. You might want to add a bit more flour to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t add too much – the dough should still be soft and slightly floppy. Form the dough into a ball and place into the buttered pan. Cover the pan with a cotton towel and place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place (like a turned-off oven) for about 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in bulk.
3. Preheat the oven to 350[dg]F; position the rack in the middle. Using your fingertips, gently deflate the dough and push it out evenly to fit the pan. The dough should be uniformly 3/8- to 1/4 inch thick.
4. Starting at the edge, push the plums into the dough at a 45 degree angle, making concentric circles and trying to squeeze as many pieces as you can. Combine the cinnamon and remaining sugar and sprinkle over plums. Drizzle with the remaining melted butter, sest aside, uncovered for 20 minutes.
5. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the plums are bubbling. Remove and set aside to cool until the fruit is not longer hot. Cut into wedges and serve with whipped cream, if serving.