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Judith Dunbar Hines displays her fall fruit coffeecake. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Judith Dunbar Hines displays her fall fruit coffeecake. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: November 18, 2012 6:11AM

Cooks who prefer to use what is most local and most seasonal religiously watch the calendar and the farmers markets for certain products that have the briefest of seasons.

We breathlessly wait for those first strawberries or rhubarb in the spring.

We rhapsodize about summer’s tomatoes, the perfect August peach — and then suddenly it is October and the markets begin to slim down or close.

That’s when I know it’s time to search for plums. Not just any plums, although there are many choices from pale yellow-green to blackest black from which to choose.

But when the Italians arrive, I’m right there with my shopping bag at the ready.

Smaller and more egg-shaped than their plump cousins, Italian plums are dark blue with a powdery bloom much like blueberries.

They should be firm with only the slightest give when tenderly squeezed. The pulp is olive green and dense and when cut, a perfectly ripe one will easily give up its seed.

When cooked, oh the glorious fuchsia color it turns!

As you might guess from its botanical name, Prunica domestica, most of the country’s yield ends up commercially dried and sold as prunes. And certainly prunes have their place, especially when used to stuff a winter pork roast or wrapped with bacon as an hors d’oeurve. While dried prunes are readily available year-round, make the most of the fresh fruit just off the tree during its very short presence.

For jams or desserts, match Italian plums with vanilla, nutmeg or lemon rind. In savory dishes, pair them with ricotta or chevre cheese, arugula, fennel, basil, bacon or lamb.

The first thing I think of when I finally get my hands on a sackful is to make a coffeecake.

We don’t take time these days to sit down with neighbors over a cup of afternoon coffee as our grandmothers did, but this cake also is perfect for a weekend brunch or a simple, not-too-sweet dessert.

In fact, this recipe is one that adapts very easily once the fleeting plum season passes; sliced apples and pears work just as well.

One charming advantage of using the Italian plums however, is how they gather their sweet juices and turn them into a jam-like puddle in the cup formed in their pitted center as they sit, cut side up, on top of the coffeecake

Serve this fluffy cake slightly warm. And, if you can part with it, share with a neighbor.

It could be just what is needed to promote the return of the neighborly coffee klatsch.

Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. Contact her at

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