Christine Klocek-Lim, Strange Violet Behind Trees (2009)
I read my obligatory share of poetry at university, but always preferred the hard-edged cutting edge gritty hyper-realism of modernist and post-modernist fiction (who says the academia is impervious to passing whims and fashions?). Christina Rossetti’s nightmarish Goblin Market was fascinating, but generally poems were … elusive, at once capable of too little and too much meaning. Slippery words with many ideas.
Now, I seem to have less time for uninterrupted leisurely reading, I read on the plane, the bus, while waiting for the plane or bus. Unexpectedly, I stumble across a poem like Strange Violets, whimsical, quiet, just a teeny bit dreamy. Like autumn should be.
For a while, we’ve seen signs of autumn making its way into our city. Even in the heart of the city, I’ve seen small changes in the trees in Hyde Park, the flowering plants in the neighbourhood, and have felt the sneaky previews of a cool breeze. There has been an influx of new season fruits in our markets and shops. I first woke up to fresh fig season (at the time of the episode of dried figs coming out of our ears). And walked into the grocers to crates of plums, grapes, and the last of the summer nectarines and peaches. The stone fruit tempt us with the delicate furs on their skin, honey sweet smell, and promises of lush juices that run down our chins. Then there’s fresh green olives, new apples, dragon fruit, and (for a very little while longer) such a range of berries that I want to feast on berries and nothing but.
There is a small local market that sets up every Saturday. For the past few weeks, there has been a stand selling organic fruit and vegetables. One day they had plums in brown paper bags, so of course I bought a couple of bags, as well as a haphazard chosen-by-colour grab-bag of vegetables. When I got home, the fruit had been warmed by the sun (it was one of those hot autumn weekends that likes to masquerade as summer). And to showcase the fruit, I made two types of plum cakes.
One was Dorie Greenspan’s dimply plum cake, and the second a yeasted plum cake (minus streusel).
Dorie’s cake was, like all of Dorie’s recipes, a hit with everyone. I threw a small handful of blueberries onto the cake halfway through baking, and added a sprig of rosemary while it was cooling. The rosemary and blueberries made the cake rather pretty, but we didn’t leave any for the camera.
The yeasted cake was a stab in the dark. While searching for the real meaning of ‘kuchen’, I found myself amassing a range of yeasted plum cake recipes. Many were from someone’s grandmother, mother, aunt, or a friend who now lives in Cambodia. This is one of those recipes.
It was just sweet enough, just cakey enough to be called a cake, but had the character of yeasted dough. I made a couple of tweaks: I left out the streusel topping so the plums can have centre stage. I roasted the plums before adding them to the dough, to concentrate their sweet-sour flavour and so I could add more to the cake without making it soggy. I also added a handful of blueberries for their lovely blue-purple-red colours.
The cake probably wasn’t Polish by then.
I scaled down the cake for our round cake pan, but it was still a hefty, hearty thing. We first had it after a dinner of southern ribs made with Chinese spices, and were grateful for green tea afterwards.
While I’m on a poetry roll, here’s another very different poem about autumn, from Keats. I was never sure whether I liked Keats’ lyricism, does it roll off the tongue too easily, too prettily tragic? But when eating plums and meditating on cake, this stanza of the much anthologised poem seems to fit right in.
Polish yeasted plum cake
(slightly adapted from this page on the Fresh Loaf)
2 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup (65ml) tepid milk
1/4 cup flour (I used 35g of strong flour or bread flour)
1/8 tsp sugar
1/4 cup (65ml) tepid milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
grated lemon peel from half a lemon
pinch of salt
2 tbsp (or 30g) unsalted butter
1 2/3 cup flour (I used 190g strong flour)
1/2 kg plums, halved and stones removed (the weight refers to plums before stones are removed)
If you want a streusel topping:
90 g flour
50 g sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 stick (60g) unsalted butter
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1. Sprinkle yeast onto milk and wait until the mixture becomes bubbly. Mix flour and sugar in a medium sized mixing bowl, add the milk mixture and mix well. Cover and leave to rise until it’s doubled in volume (I went shopping at this point, and when I came back 3 hours later, it had doubled in volume).
2. Preheat the oven to 150°C ((300°F). Slice plums in half and cut out the kernel. Place plums, cut side up, on a baking tray and roast for 45 minutes to an hour.
3. Add all other ingredients to the starter, knead until the dough is soft and pliable, you want a happy-feeling dough. Cover and leave to rise until doubled in volume. (I went out for a walk, and came back almost 2 hours later. The dough had doubled.)
4. Mix flour, sugars, cinnamon. Rub in butter by hand, or pour melted butter onto the flour mixture.
5. Line a round cake pan with greased baking paper. Place the dough on the pan and spread it by prodding it with your fingers. This created a thin layer of dough. Arrange the plum quarters on the dough, cut side up, wriggling the pieces so they really sink into the dough.
6. If using streusel, spread the streusel on top of the plums. In any case, cover the cake pan with a tea towel and leave to proof for 30 minutes.
7. Baking for approximately 30 minutes, or up to 45 minutes, until the cake is a light golden brown and the stick inserted into the dough comes out dry.