Plum Cake

Years ago when I purchased my favorite cookbook, Baking with Julia, I began to steadily go through it, deciding which recipes to try.  This practice isn’t all that unusual, but at the time, baking was something I reserved for special occasions — birthdays, dinner parties, holidays — and always planned for on weekends, or when I had vacation time.  If someone had asked, I’d have said I was more of a cook than a baker, and not always confident that what I baked would turn out as I wanted it to, so kept things safe with the basics. Cake, an occasional bread pudding, and pie were the norm.

The dust cover of the cookbook is now worn and slightly torn in a few places with spots and spills on many of the pages.  Its sturdy binding has relaxed quite a bit, allowing it to comfortably lie open on my kitchen counter, sometimes for several days while I’m thinking about a particular recipe, glancing at it as I pass, wondering when the right time might be to indulge myself with a treat that doesn’t take a lot of time, or tackle something more complicated instead.

I think of so many different things when I open this particular cookbook, and most are not about the recipes.  I think of younger boys still at home, occasions celebrating a kitchen renovation, or springtime in all its glory and a back yard groomed to perfection with my mother’s love and sweat.  I think of a dinner party for six that lasted well into the night, meticulously planned for, each course paired with the perfect wine.  I remember all that was lovely about a very special house, no longer ours to enjoy.  So many things beyond recipes.

I don’t know that it matters which recipe I tried first from Baking with Julia, but of the 98 cookbooks I currently own, it’s the one I have baked more from than any other.  Of course there are quite a few recipes I haven’t tried, and several which continue to taunt me, all seemingly beyond my ability or perhaps patience to contend with– the Pain de Camagne, for example, which is made by a very old chef-levain method requiring one to “capture and nurture airborne wild yeast” for the dough.   But I have tried many more than once, like the Oven-Roasted Plum Cakes.

I’d waited forever to try the recipe, but when I saw a small bin of Italian prune plums at the market one day– something I’d not come across before — I knew they were destined for those plum cakes.  I sorted through the deeply purple oval-shaped fruit to collect a small bag, noticing their dusty skins and stems still clinging to most.  Some were quite firm, and others soft and fragile, like a ripe fig might feel.  Or persimmon.  I chose the firm plums finding that once sliced, the fruit easily separated from the stone unlike other plums such as Santa Rosas, which aren’t as cooperative.  The interior color is a beautiful mix of melon and chartreuse and the flavor not as sweet as I’d thought it would be, but pleasant all the same.

They would be perfect for a whole plum cake rendition and thoughts while baking about times fondly remembered.

Plum Cake


4 oz. butter, room temp

2 T + 1/2 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. sugar

2 lg. eggs

1 tsp. lemon zest

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1 c. flour

3/4 tsp. baking soda

1/4 c. buttermilk

8 Italian prune plums


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Brush butter on the sides and bottom of an 8″ round cake pan with a removable bottom.  Cut a piece of parchment that fits the bottom and place that inside the cake pan.  Butter that as well and set aside.
  3. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, and all of the granulated sugar on medium until the sugar is dissolved in the butter and the mixture is pale in color, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing with each addition until completely incorporated, about 1 minute.
  5. Add the lemon zest and the vanilla and continue to beat about 1 minute.
  6. Add the flour and baking soda and mix on low speed just to incorporate into the wet ingredients.
  7. Add the buttermilk and mix on low for half a minute.
  8. Give the batter a few folds with a rubber spatula making sure the sides of the bowl are scraped in the process.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
  10. Press each plum half cut side up into the batter, pressing lightly, but not allowing the fruit to be covered with the batter.
  11. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the top of the plums and batter.
  12. Bake on the center rack of the oven until golden brown and a tester inserted near the center is removed clean, about 25-30 minutes.
  13. Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a baking rack at least 10 minutes before removing it from the pan.
  14. Serve warm, if possible, with a lightly sweetened whipped cream mascarpone topping if desired.

Recipe Notes

  • The first time I made this recipe, I did make separate plum cakes which I loved.  But you decide.  The convenience of a whole cake is always a good thing, but the individual cakes allowed the plums to show.  Ultimately, the taste is the same.
  • The original recipe doesn’t specify a type of plum, so have fun trying different plums or whatever you have available.
  • Evidently, I missed out on all the hooplah on the Plum Cake the New York Times published quite a few years ago.  It’s a holiday tradition from what I understand, and it’s very similar to the one I’ve shared here with differences being in the butter and sugar quantities.
  • When I don’t have fresh buttermilk, I use a dry substitute and add water.  It works quite well if you’re in a pinch.
  • You may have extra brown sugar.  Either sprinkle it all over, or just sprinkle it on the plums.  I went for it and the top is nice and crunchy.
  • This is a perfect coffee style cake and it keeps well if wrapped.  To warm it up before serving, pop it in the microwave.
  • If you’re not familiar with Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan, there is more information here regarding the PBS program.

More Plum Cake Recipes to Enjoy

Guilty Kitchen — Plum Cake Recipe

food52 — Late Summer Plum Cake

Always Order Dessert — Evolution of a Plum Cake

The Wednesday Chef — Dorie Greenspan’s Dimply Plum Cake

Lemons and Lavender — Italian Plum Cake