When Marian Burros, a longtime food reporter for The New York Times, first wrote about the plum torte in September 1983, no one expected it to become the most requested recipe, and among the most beloved, in the history of the newspaper.
It certainly appeared without fanfare, nestled in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, accompanying a brief report about the arrival of the Italian plum season. With just eight ingredients and a few short steps, it didn’t seem to have the makings of a hit.
Yet after the fact, the newspaper received so many requests for the recipe that the editors decided to reprint it the following year, and the next, and each subsequent year until they decided it was time to put an end to the madness. In 1989, they ran an updated version (three-quarters of a cup of sugar, rather than a full cup) with a broken-line border, encouraging readers to cut it out, laminate it and save it. Burros wrote: “This could really be the last time we print the recipe. Really!”
Numerous letters arrived in protest.
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“The appearance of the recipe, like the torte itself, is bittersweet,” a reader wrote. “Summer is leaving, fall is coming. That’s what your annual recipe is all about. Don’t be grumpy about it.”
“Perhaps, it has become the adult version of September’s shiny new notebook for school,” another wrote.
Two readers sent in poems.
The torte, which is really more of a cake, came from Lois Levine, a childhood friend of Burros, who suggested it for a self-published cookbook they wrote together in 1960 called “Elegant but Easy.” It was named Fruit Torte, and included a fortuitous note at the top: “This deserves a 10-star rating on our list.”
The recipe wasn’t just popular; it was endlessly adaptable. In 1991, a New Age Plum Torte was published that replaced the butter and eggs with bananas and egg substitute. An apple-cranberry variation appeared in 1994. Melissa Clark wrote about the ubiquitousness of the torte at Rosh Hashana celebrations in New York, and created her own whole-wheat version.
As newspaper clippings and recipe files have ceded ground to web pages and Pinterest boards, the torte has found a new set of admirers online. A recent Google search of “New York Times plum torte” yielded nearly 80,000 search results, many of them links to popular food bloggers extolling the ease and versatility of the recipe. The version here calls for three-quarters to one cup of sugar, a compromise that nods to both the first iteration of the recipe and the 1989 torte; we still think of it as the original.
Burros, who is now retired, is still making the torte. In the summer, she prefers to use blueberries and peaches, and she doesn’t like it with the oversize plums available in midsummer. She holds out for the smaller blue-black Italian plums that arrive in early autumn.
“I love that something so simple took off,” Burros said when asked about the recipe’s enduring popularity. “Of course, I think that’s why it did.”
When Amanda Hesser was collecting recipe suggestions from readers for “The Essential New York Times Cookbook,” published in 2010, 247 people nominated the torte. Hesser called it “a nearly perfect recipe.”
“That I was really proud of,” Burros said.
5 Ways to Adapt Our Plum Torte
First published in 1983, Marian Burros’ plum torte has become one of the most popular recipes in the history of The Times, and it’s no mystery why. There are so many things to love: It’s easy, it’s practically no-fail and it’s endlessly adaptable.
Over the years, readers have tried a number of variations (Burros herself prefers blueberries and peaches in the summer) and have written to tell us about them. Here are five ways to make the legendary torte your own, drawn directly from readers who have done just that.
1. Replace the plums with almost any seasonal fruit: apricots, halved and pitted; cranberries or any summer berry; sliced apples, nectarines, peaches and pears. Canned and frozen fruit can stand in for fresh.
Made this for the first time using 4 cups of blueberries and raspberries (mixed). It was perfect! – Jane F.
I’ve been using a version of this for years as a cranberry holiday bread. – Marie Schappert
I have made this with about a quart of drained canned fruit of any type, as well as frozen. I can plums, peaches and pears in season, and if a jar fails to seal, you can bake this cake with it rather than reprocess the jar. – Jennifer Robinson
2. Experiment with spices, herbs and extracts: vanilla extract, almond extract, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, rosemary, orange or lemon zest.
I add about a half teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract to the batter. This cake is so easy and good. I even memorized the recipe – except my memorization was imperfect and I baked the cake with the fruit on the bottom by accident. It still was delicious! – Jane Eyrehead
I added a teaspoon of finely minced fresh rosemary to the batter … nice, subtle flavor. – Gail
3. Change up the pan. The torte can be baked in any dish provided it’s approximately 8 to 10 inches in diameter and oven-safe – no springform pan needed.
Make it in any Pyrex, casserole, anything. – Cynthia
Used my pie plate because my springform pan was nowhere to be found. – Kelleryjones
A 9-inch pan gives greater height and moisture to the tart than a 10-inch pan. – J. David Nelson
4. Play with the flours. You can add almond or cornmeal flour to the all-purpose flour, or swap in gluten-free flour blends, with excellent results. (Melissa Clark made a version with whole wheat flour.)
Made this with gluten-free flour and it turned out Perfectly! Everyone loved it. – Suzanne
I substituted 1 / 2 cup almond meal and 1 / 2 cup brown rice flour for 1 cup of wheat flour. I also added parchment paper over the greased bottom of the spring pan. It was delicious served warm. – Mari Schappert
Made this last night after tasting the one made by our daughter. Used raspberries and blackberries, one basket each, instead of plums, and 1/3 cup cornmeal and 2/3 cup flour. Fantastic!!! The cornmeal adds a very sophisticated “Italian” character to it, very slight crunch, and amazing flavor. – John
5. Double, triple, even quadruple it. The batter scales up like a dream, and the baked cake freezes well.
This is one of my favorite recipes and has been for many years. In addition to plums, I’ve used blueberries, peaches, apples and various combinations of more than one fruit. It also freezes great. I line the baking dish with aluminum foil and once baked and cooled slightly, turn the baking dish upside down on a plate, peel off the foil, then turn it right-side up on another plate. – Deborah
Double the recipe and it fits nicely in 13-by-9-inch disposable aluminum pans. – Nellie Armstrong.
Think about making two … one is not enough. – Sandra T.
Original Plum Torte
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
3 / 4 to 1 cup sugar
1 / 2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt (optional)
24 halves pitted purple plums
Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon, for topping
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
3. Spoon the batter into a springform pan of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
4. Bake 1 hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream. (To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.)
Crunchy-Topped Whole-Wheat Plum Cake
Time: 50 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 / 2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more to grease pan
1 1 / 2 pounds plums, preferably several varieties, pitted and sliced
1 1 / 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1 / 2 tablespoon baking powder
1 / 2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 / 2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1 / 2 cup milk
2 tablespoons Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
2. Place the plum slices in a bowl and gently toss with 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining whole-wheat flour with the baking powder and kosher salt.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together 1 / 2cup butter, sugar, cognac or brandy and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until thoroughly combined.
4. Add half the flour mixture and beat until just combined. Pour in the milk and continue beating, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat until just combined.
5. Scrape the dough into the pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Scatter on the plums in an even layer. Sprinkle the Demerara sugar on top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before serving, with whipped cream if you like.