My mother loved to entertain; she went to elaborate ends preparing for her dinner parties, many of which had international themes-for these foreign affairs, she often employed recipes from the Time-Life Books collection Foods of the World, which came out in 1968.
Though I don’t know its origin, this prune cake was among my favorite desserts that Mom served to her many guests. I recall her making it in the sixties; perhaps she acquired it from beloved friends, while we were living in Tucson, Arizona, during several winters in this decade.
Its subtitle boasts: A Cake to Bake in Secret (Keeps Well if You Hide It). How true this is, for this confection melts in one’s mouth, with its butterscotch glaze seeping into the entire cake; thus, it stays moist for weeks, if you don’t eat it first.
In Biblical times, in the hot Mediterranean countries, drying was the most expedient way for preserving fruit and vegetables; grapes became “raisins of the sun”, plums became prunes, dates and figs likewise intensified in flavor as they shriveled up. There, this basic technology employed the powerful sun, with either spreading the juicy produce out on trays or the rooftop, or burying it in the hot sand; this latter means of preservation became apparent at the beginning of time, with naturally dried fruit, which had fallen from trees and vines in the hot dessert.
Such sun-drying methods didn’t work well in the cooler climates of Eastern Europe; thus, more sophisticated means of dehydrating developed here. Beginning in the Middle Ages, in Moravia and Slovakia, special drying-houses were filled with wicker frames, on which prepared fruit was laid out; constantly-burning stoves, underneath these frames, produced the necessary dry heat to transform the food.
Medieval Scandinavia discovered that cool, crisp air, aided by a stiff breeze, could be utilized to dry Norwegian stokkfisk-cod that had been gutted and hung to dry on wooden racks. This dried ailment provided these people with an almost indestructible, cheap food reserve.
During this time, means for food preservation were also developing in England. The rich Englishmen, however, had cool stillrooms, where they candied nuts and citrus peel, bottled fruits-present day canning methods were discovered inl the early 19th century-and made marmalades, jams, and sweetmeats (this last, in Webster’s, is any delicacy made with a sweetening agent; “meat” here refers to food-sweet foods-such as candied fruit). Indeed, the English employed the art of candying, or preserving with sugar, although they adhered to many alchemical superstitions and “secrets”, such as walnuts should be preserved on June 24th, St. John’s Day.
This memorable cake calls for dried plums that have been resuscitated. These stewed prunes, along with the rich butterscotch glaze oozing into the whole, allow for an incredibly moist dessert that keeps for weeks, providing it is hidden from sight.
Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork (New York: Basic Books, 2012), pp. 218, 219.
Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), pp. 54, 180, 181.
Prune Cake Yields: 12 servings. Total prep time: 1 1/2 hr/ active prep time: 30 min/ baking time: 1 hr. Note: this recipe calls for a 9” tube pan, with a removable bottom.
2 c flour (Bob’s Red Mill organic unbleached white flour is ideal; may grind 1 2/3 cup organic soft winter white wheat berries, to make 2 c fresh flour.)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is important for optimum health; an inexpensive Himalayan salt is available in bulk at our local Winco.)
1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon (Our local Fred Meyer-Kroger-store has an excellent organic Korintje cinnamon in bulk.)
1 1/2 tbsp nutmeg
1 1/2 tbsp allspice
1 c oil (Recipe calls for corn oil, but I used grapeseed oil, as it can be heated to high temperatures without damage.)
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 c sugar (May substitute coconut sugar, which has a lower glycemic index.)
3 lg eggs, beaten
1 c buttermilk
1 1/3 c dried, PITTED prunes, soaked and coarsely chopped (May be done ahead, see step 3.)
1 c walnuts, chopped
Hot Butterscotch Glaze
1 c sugar (Cane sugar is important here; organic is best.)
1/2 c buttermilk
1/4 c butter
1/4 c lite Karo syrup (For easy pouring, rub measuring cup with butter first.)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- If using freshly ground flour, begin grinding wheat berries now.
- Pour boiling water over prunes; let sit for 13-15 minutes, or until soft, but not mushy; drain, cool, and cut fruit in halves. Note: unsulfured prunes will take longer to cook.
- In a sealed gallon-size storage bag, vigorously shake flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. (This recipe calls for LOTS of spice; freshly ground nutmeg is superb; see above photo for my 1980’s nutmeg grinder.)
- Mix oil, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 1/2 c sugar together in a large bowl; beat in eggs, one at a time; mix in flour mixture and buttermilk alternately. Stir in the prune halves and nuts. (If using fresh ground flour, know that it is a coarser grind and thus absorbs moisture more slowly; therefore, if grinding flour fresh, be sure to let batter rest in bowl for 45 minutes before baking, to absorb liquids.)
Pour batter into an ungreased 9” tube pan, with a removable bottom. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean, and cake lightly responds when pressed with finger. Meanwhile get ready to cook the glaze.
- In a medium saucepan, measure the ingredients for the butterscotch glaze. Set aside, until 10 minutes before cake is done. After cake has been baking for 50 minutes, boil glaze over medium heat, until a candy thermometer registers 235 degrees F, or a soft ball is formed-using a clean spoon, place a small amount of the cooked sugar in a cup of cold water; then, squish together with fingers to form a soft, pliable ball that doesn’t hold its shape (see photo above).
- Immediately pour hot glaze over hot cake; piercing it repeatedly with a skewer or toothpick, so it can easily soak up glaze (see photo below).
After cooling on rack, slide a knife down all sides and under removable bottom; then, gently transfer pastry to plate.
- Remember this is a cake to be baked in secret, for it keeps a long time, if you hide it.