“It’s almost zwetschgendatschi time,” Melanie informed me over lunch the other week.
Punctuated by my attempts to pronounce the name in the Swedish accent that I seem to adopt every time I try to speak German (find the real pronunciation here), Mel brought me up to speed. Her family in Munich has a zwetschgen tree in the backyard. It bears small, deep purple plums that ripen over the span of a short week or two in late August/early September. During that time, there’s a mad rush to use up all zwetschgen before they drop off the trees. Enter the zwetschgendatschi. It’s a cake made in a sheet pan nearly the size of the oven and uses up about half a trees worth of plums.
A week later, I found the first zwetschgen in the grocery store and bought about a dozen. I called Mel, we made plans for a Sunday of baking, and I set to work researching recipes. Following Mel’s guidelines very closely. The dough shouldn’t be too sweet. The zwetschgen should be sour. Streusel is optional, but not necessary. Whipped cream is not optional.
Over the next few days, I found two base recipes and studied technique. I practiced cutting and folding the plums into quarters while leaving the skin intact. This sounds like a lot of trouble, but when you’re arranging the plums in overlapping rows like roof shingles, jammed against each other all the way to the edge of the pan, you’ll be thankful for the efficiency. Because when you’re trying to use up a tree’s worth of fruit in one large cake, you want the zwetschgen packed as tightly as possible.
When Mel arrived at my place 10:30 am on Sunday morning, I was ready. But a quick glance at the mere pound of plums sent us straight to the grocery store for more. With three more pounds of plums in hand, we rolled up our sleeves and set to work.
We made a yeast dough, watching as my mixer kneaded it into a perfect ball. While it was rising, we carefully quartered our plums. There’s nothing like working side by side over a cutting board.
The dough doubled, I rolled it out and then we stretched and pushed it into the edges of the pan. We arranged the plums, gently pressing each one into the dough, tips upright in a tight phalanx formation. Datschi most likely comes from the Middle High German word detschen or datschen which means to press.
We sprinkled the plums with sugar, Mel reminding me not to make the cake to sweet, and then popped the tray into the oven.
While we waited, I made lunch. As we sat down to the table, we could smell the zwetschgen concentrating in the oven as they sank deeper into the sweet rising dough.
Plates cleared, Mel called her mother, then her brother, the sound of lively German in the background when I pulled the glistening cake out of the oven.
As the cake cooled and the juices pooled, I whipped up some cream sprinkled with confectioners sugar.
I carried the tray around my apartment, trying to find the perfect light for capturing its beauty. This shot was taken on a blanket on my balcony. (And then the blanket, splotched with a few sticky spots of juice, went straight into the washer.)
We finally cut into the cake into large rectangles, the knife slipping between zwetschgen and hitting the soft bread-like cake beneath and reaching the pan with a thud.
The scoop of whipped cream! Don’t leave it off. It slowly melted, the cold mingling with the warm, the sweet cutting the tart.
I invited a few other friends over that evening to help get through the pan and had just a few rectangles for the next day’s breakfast (and lunch) by which time the plum flesh had deepened from a golden green color to a rich ruby red, the syrup dyeing the dough nearly all the way through.
Happy weekend, all!
Zwetschgendatschi (Bavarian plum cake)
Zwetschgendatschi is a plum cake made in Germany (and nearby countries) with the small, oval zwetschgen plums (also called Italian prune plums or damson plums or quetsche in French) that ripen in early fall. The cake has a yeast dough and is jammed edge to edge with plums. Pick out plums that are just slightly tender. If they’re too ripe, they’ll fall apart when you cut into them. Plus, the whole point of the cake is to use up the plums before they pass their prime.
This cake is classically made in a sheet pan - I used a 13X18 cookie sheet with a raised edge.
- 1 C whole milk
- 1 T dry yeast (approximately one packet)
- 1 t + 1/2 C + 2 T sugar (you add sugar three different times)
- 1 t + 4 C flour
- 1/2 C butter (one stick), plus more for greasing
- pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 1 lemon for zest
- 4 lbs zwetschgen (Italian plums)
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 2 T confectioners sugar
Proof. Warm milk in a small pot until lukewarm (don’t let it bubble). Remove from heat and sprinkle in the yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of flour. Cover with a cloth towel and set in a warm place for about 20 minutes until the top is frothy (i.e., proof that the yeast is alive and working).
Melt. Melt the butter and let it cool while the yeast is proofing.
Knead. In the bowl of your stand mixer (or just a regular bowl if you want to knead by hand), stir together sugar (1/2 cup), flour (4 cups), and salt. Add the milk mixture, melted butter (make sure it has cooled – you don’t want it to cook the egg), egg, and lemon zest. Knead until the dough comes together into a solid ball. Knead by hand for a few minutes. You shouldn’t need any extra flour while kneading.
Rise. Return the dough to your bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, poke a hole in the plastic, and place the bowl in a warm place. Let the dough rise until doubled, about an hour.
Slice. You’re going to want to slice each plum into quarters. You can do it the old fashioned way – cut all the way around the pit and then cut each half in half, but this will make arranging the plums a bit more difficult. The other way sounds a bit more complicated, but works really well with these plums. Slice the plum on only one side and pluck out the pit (these plums are “freestone” ones, so the pits pop right out). Gently open the plum halves without cutting the skin. Make two more cuts to flatten the plum into quarters, still keeping the skin intact.
Preheat. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Press. Generously grease a large cookie sheet. When the dough has risen enough, knead it a few more times by hand and then roll it out into a rectangle around the size of the pan (don’t worry if it’s not exact). Transfer the dough to the greased pan and press and stretch it until it reaches the edges. It will initially spring back, but evenutally it will stay in place. Try to get the dough the same thickness all around.
Arrange. Place the plums quarters on the dough in layered rows, flesh side facing forward and with the stem tips facing up. If you’ve flattened the plums, lean each one up against the next, overlapping like shingles on a roof. Now you see why it’s worth the early effort of cutting the plums carefully.
Bake. Sprinkle the plums with sugar and bake for about 30 minutes until the dough gets golden brown. Let cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before eating.
Whip. Whip together cream and confectioners sugar. Watch carefully so you don’t overwhip to make butter (trust me, I’ve done it).
Slice. Cut the cake into 3X4 or 3X5 rectantgular pieces.
Eat. Top each slice with a good spoonful of whipped cream. Have at it!