A political dessert: “Blue fruit on a brown base”
In autumn, when plums are in season, it is traditional to have plum tart for the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur. But as Austria’s political situation turns sour by the day1, eating a plum tart in Vienna is highly symbolic to me for another reason. Why? It’s the colors: densely packed blue fruit on a brown crust. Blue is the color of Austria’s right wing. Brown stands for the Nazis.
Therefore, eating this delicious pastry has a liberating dimension for me, due to its admittedly cannibalistic symbolism. It helps me overcome some of my political apprehensions these days.
The traditional, comforting plum tart has age-old powers. Joan Nathan, in her book “Jewish Cooking in America,”2 depicts a couple, the man is wearing a uniform: “Erwin Stiefel ate his wife’s plum kuchen, kissed her, and went off to fight in World War II.”
I don’t use Joan Nathan’s recipe for my plum tart. In fact, mine is a traditional recipe from Omi, very similar to the one Claudia Roden published in “The Book of Jewish Food.”3 It’s a basic tart dough topped simply with a large quantity of fruit.
I have a secret ingredient to help me relax and stay confident in the face of the real blue and brown while eating this blue and brown treat. My shibboleth is cinnamon. Seems like our grandmothers used to put it on far too many things. In classic Central European Jewish food tradition, one could find it even in my childhood’s tomato soup.
Real Zwetschken for this plum tart
Zwetschken plums are a local variety of blue plums, dark blue, almost black in fact. Zwetschken is spelled with a “K” here in Vienna, not with a soft “G” like elsewhere. Because locals, my family included, seem to love the distinct precision that the second explosion of the consonant “K” lends to this otherwise already delightful word. Just try to say it: “Zwetschken,” It’s a mouthful.
Right now, we are in the midst of the plum season (July to October in Central Europe) and the nearby farmer’s market (the Karmelitermarkt in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt) has plenty of them, even organic. So go there and ask to try one, because you should buy the fruitiest you can find, nicely sweet and tart. The variety damson “Hauszwetschke” is as good as it can get.
If you can’t get Austrian “Zwetschken,” the tart will taste fine with any variety of good plums, too. But in that case, putting some extra lemon on the fruits will be helpful. That said, this crust will be very fine, delightful even, with apricots too. In which case, you’ll have to omit the cinnamon.
Shape versus efficiency: la tarte
Plum tarts are a very famous sweet treat and a well-cherished childhood memory for a lot of us. The local population, according to German tradition, is in favor of a large rectangular baking tray. I prefer to give it the round tart shape, which I came to love while studying in Paris for far too many years. Seriously though, a rectangular shape fills the oven space to the max, is thus for sure far more efficient, but I like the round and delicately small 9 to 10 inch (23 to 25 cm) tarts.
A tart or quiche pan with a removable bottom is perfect if you feel adventurous. Since there is the inherent risk of leakage, you have to pay close attention while preparing your base. Make sure to fill all the holes. Don’t press the fruit into the dough too hard. To be on the safe side, you can always put something beneath the pan. That’s what I do, in any case.
If everything goes according to plan, you’ll have a chance of being able to unmold the tart. If not, see mine: you’ll just have to serve it straight out of the pan.
Finally, have a look at my video “Zwetschkenkuchen (Plum Tart) Politics – Blue fruit on a brown base in Vienna.” Michaela, my trusted companion in all things food, joined me for this video too.
Recipe: Zwetschkenkuchen (Plum Tart)
Yields 8 to 10 servings
2 pounds (1 kg) sweet-tart, dark blue damson plums, pitted and halved. Try to get the variety “Hauszwetschke.”
Juice of half a lemon (optional)
1 teaspoon (2,6 g) cinnamon
1/3 cup (60g) baker’s sugar (superfine sugar)
confectioner’s sugar (powder sugar) for dusting
1 1/4 cups (175 g) flour. We used organic spelt but any all-purpose will do.
1/2 teaspoon (2 g) baking powder
1/3 cup (60 g) baker’s sugar (superfine sugar)
3 oz (75 g) cold unsalted butter
pinch of salt (0,25 g)
1 medium (US) or small (Europe) egg, lightly beaten (yielding 46 ml or 3 tbsp)
1 tablespoon (5 ml) rum. For an authenticate taste use an Austrian Inländer-Rum like Stroh.
If you couldn’t find Zwetschken or your plums are not fruity enough to your taste, combine them with the juice of half a lemon.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
Combine the dry ingredients for the dough: the baking powder, the pinch of salt, the flour with half of the baker’s sugar (1/3 cup or 60 g). Dice the butter into cubes and mix it into the flour and sugar mixture with your hands. Working quickly, rub the butter into this mixture, so as not to warm the butter more than necessary. It should feel like sand or coarse meal between your fingers. Add the egg and the rum. Mix swiftly, just enough so that everything pulls together to form a ball of dough. If, at this point, it is a bit too sticky, add a very small amount of flour and try again.
Grease a 9 to 10 inch (23 to 25 cm) tart or quiche pan or a baking pan with butter. Use your fingers or a brush to get it in all those nooks and crannies.
Build the base directly inside the pan, by taking chunks of dough and plastering the bottom. For the edges use strips of dough that you’ve rolled between your hands. Make sure to close all the holes and seams to limit the risk of leakage. Be sure to have a look at our video, where Michaela joined me for this demonstration.
Arranging the fruit
Place the Zwetschken plums cut side up to maximize caramelization of the juices. Put the plums as close as you can and in a circle or spiral on top of the dough. Don’t skimp on the effort you put into arranging the Zwetschken plums on the dough. Be careful to not press down too hard, to avoid any holes in the bottom. Dust with the cinnamon and the remaining 1/3 cup (or 60 g) of baker’s sugar.
Baking the plum tart
Place the pan on some aluminum foil to catch what might drip out. Don’t use your oven’s convection setting! It would dry out and burn the marvelous fruit. Bake in the preheated oven at 375°F (190°C) for 45 minutes or until the Zwetschken are completely soft and caramelized and the pastry gets golden brown.
Traditionally the tart is left to cool off completely, and served with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. But if you are anything like the child I still am when facing this tart straight out of the oven, you won’t wait, and you’ll have vanilla ice cream at hand to face any risk of third-degree burns.
Don’t miss the little video we made to illustrate the process:
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- Although I specifically wrote this intro for the presidential election of 2016, this, unfortunately, remains true.
- Joan Nathan, Jewish Cooking in America (New York: Knopf, 1994).
- Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (New York: Knopf, 1996).