How can I have a nostalgia, a longing for home, for a place I hardly lived in and haven't visited in nearly a decade? When I think of home, the spot on this earth where my heart finds the most peace, the Alps instantly come to mind. I stretch the thought out further, and think of lower Bavaria, to my maternal family's hometown of Straubing, where I lived for the year I took off between high school and college. I recall my vacations in Munich and my studies in Vienna and realize if I had three months left to live I would spend it there. In Bavaria and Austria, with a home base smack dab in the middle of the mountains.
And why not? I am first-generation American, with a family history in Bavaria I have (so far) dated back to the mid-18th century. My great-grandfather was born in Vienna. So just because I was born and raised in California, does that mean that this magical land of two countries that are part of the most romanticized mountain range in Europe can't also be home?
I'm not sure what has kept me away from this place for so long. I usually cite the exorbitant cost of international travel as the main factor that prevents me from visiting, but I think I could have figured that out over the span of ten years. No, I believe it's something darker. Perhaps somewhere deep down, I'm terrified that I won't want to come back home to the Bay Area, that my life I have built here will feel empty and meaningless upon my return. I'm afraid that the longing, the wistfulness, the nostalgia will be so strong after a three-week holiday that I will be consumed and that all that I love in California will turn to ash.
So this is usually when I turn to the only thing I have that both indulges my feelings of longing as well as quells them (temporarily). I cook or bake something exquisitely Germanic, drink a little Grüner or Riesling, and try to recall the sharp, clean scent of Alpine air.
I have a particular fondness for German cakes, as they tend to be served in the afternoon, with coffee, and they aren't usually as cloyingly sweet as American confections. Cake after dinner always seems anticlimactic-- give me a nub of good cheese and a little tawny port or digestif and I'm content. So I usually save my baking for afternoon cakes or simple savory cookies.
Summer happens to be the perfect time for Pflaumenkuchen, aka Zwetchgenkuchen, a traditional yeasted plum cake. I don't usually feel like messing with yeast unless it's for bread, so mine is a bit of an amalgamation of recipes. I've added in another beloved German ingredient: poppyseeds. They give the cake a little nutty lift that further places it in the afternoon cake realm. The only thing that is absolute is the use of deep dark plums, preferably from someone's backyard tree, though a handful of specimens from an organic farmer's market stand will be excellent as well.
Poppyseed Plum Cake
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt (I use Diamond Kosher, adjust as necessary)
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) high quality, pastured butter
- 2/3 cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
- 1/4 cup poppyseeds
- 5 large black plums, pitted and sliced
- Optional: 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, whipped cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and butter a rectangular cake pan. Sift flours, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside. Cream 6 tablespoons butter and 2/3 cup sugar in a stand mixer until fluffy. Mix in eggs, one by one, followed by extracts. Alternate mixing in dry flour mixture with yogurt, until just combined. Fold in poppy seeds with spatula, and spread batter into prepared pan. Arrange plum slices in neat rows on top, then sprinkle plums with remaining sugar. Melt two remaining tablespoons of butter and drizzle over the top. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool, then dust with powdered sugar if desired. Slice into squares and serve with generous dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, if desired.
Base recipe adapted from Bon Appetit October 1997 issue