The name is quite a mouthful: Zwetchgenkuchen (pronounced ts-vetch-gen- koo-hen), the German for plum cake.
Really, it’s not exactly a cake in the usual meaning of the term, but more like a bready tart, an open circle of yeast dough loaded with juicy, sweet plums.
One reason it’s special is that you can make it properly only in the fall when the dusky blue Italian plums or prunes are ripe.
This kuchen speaks of autumn, of harvest – the culmination of the season’s riches embodied in the jewel-like ripe fruit slices, a layered rose mandala of overlapping concentric circles, baked to a deep wine-gold.
My grandparents escaped Nazi Germany in 1940, and weren’t able to bring possessions….so the heirlooms are the wonderful recipes my grandmother brought.
Like Zwetchgenkuchen— a pastry so delicious that the secrets of making it have been passed from one generation to the next.
I’m just kidding about “secrets” — it takes a little time and effort but is really quite simple, I assure you.
First, the prunes, or plums, whichever you prefer. You can buy these at a grocery store or fruit stand or farmer’s market in late fall, unless you’re lucky enough to know a tree in need of picking.
Steve and I walked around the neighborhood last week, and in one front yard I spotted a tree with dozens of Italian prunes fallen to the ground beneath it. The next day I came back to the house and asked the owner if I could pick some.
“Sure, sure, pick all you want!” she said. “We’ve used all we can and the neighbors have been picking them and they’re still falling off the tree.”
I sure was glad I asked rather than stealing the fruit. I picked the inside branches and filled up a big bag. The prunes were very sweet and still nice and firm. Yum. But this is one fruit that may be even better when cooked….
There are fancier versions, with buttery rich crusts and streusel on top, and though these are wonderful, I still make my family’s version, plainer and less caloric, most often, and it serves just as well for breakfast or with afternoon coffee or tea as it does for dessert.
If you’ve made a challah dough already and kept some of it in the refrigerator, you can just pull out a chunk of dough and make the Zwetchgenkuchen as big or small as you like, depending on the number of plums you have and how fast you think you can eat it. It is best the day it’s made. Though it’s still tasty the next day (breakfast!), the crust tends to get pretty soggy from the juicy plums.
Here’s how to make it:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Take a ball of challah or other rich yeast bread dough, about the size of a small grapefruit. Pat it into a disc, then roll into a circle about 10 to 12 inches wide. It helps if you roll a little, then let the dough rest a bit before rolling again.
Start with about 20 medium size Italian prunes (more if they are small). You probably won’t need more than this but it’s always a good idea to have a few extra. Cut the plums lengthwise into quarters (some people use halves, but I think it bakes better with the smaller pieces) and put them in a bowl. Squeeze half a lemon over them, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, along with a grating of lemon zest, and mix these together.
Now layer the plums on the circle of dough. Start with the outer edge, and go around, overlapping the plums slightly. When you get to the middle, spoon any remaining sugar-mixture over the plums.
Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the plums are juicy and beginning to turn plum-colored. Let cool on a baking rack. Extra delicious when warm!