by Paula Marcoux.
“The Plums are in!” At a certain mid-August point, emails, phone calls, and Facebook notifications to that effect fly among my local friends of European origin. The yearly rash of plum-cookery is about to arrive on the South Shore.
The plums in question are not the California-grown Asian hybrid table plum available for better or worse at every grocery store through the summer. No, these are the smaller European-style stone-fruits: the prune plum, the Italian plum, the mirabelle plum. Lower in moisture, but high in flavor, these fruits are best for the kitchen, baked into tarts and tortes, simmered into sauces, and distilled into booze.
Depending upon their national origins and personal inclinations, my friends take these little fruits in a lot of different directions; as moocher and hanger-on, I just strive to be in the right place at the right time. Kirsten, from Hamburg, offers as her August plum-fest opener a luscious kuchen, tender butter cake topped with neat ranks of tiny succulent fruit wedges. Meanwhile, an elderly Irish pal confects a fine jam of Damsons, pits and all, to adorn her fabulous home-baked bread all the coming year. And in a stroke of luck, here’s Serbian plum liquor to sip, homemade by the aunt of a friend — the smoothest, most flavorful moonshine ever, yet powerful enough to bring on a bit of a lie-down.
But I think my favorite annual plum-treat is Zwetschkenknödeln, Austrian Plum Dumplings. I owe a great debt to my sister-in-law Nora Helbich for exposing me to these globes of solid delight. Her Austrian mother, Jolanthe (Hanna) Berleth Helbich, was brought up in the intermission between the world wars in the epicenter of post-Hapsburg Europe, and, as a born cook, absorbed the rich culinary traditions of the Danube region. Today, Nora’s Plymouth kitchen occasionally explodes with inherited Mittel European excess–roast pork, bread dumplings, horseradish cream, poppy-seed strudel–and when that happens, take my word for it, you want to be there.
But the plum dumplings are an event in themselves, celebrating nothing more or less than, well, plum dumplings. In their cheese-based pasta jackets, they are a solid meal, not too sweet, but wonderfully satisfying. Too steamy and substantial to be a fitting treat for the dog days (try plum granita then), dumplings may need to wait till the latter end of plum season, after Labor Day perhaps, when a cool evening facilitates downing a couple or three of the happy objects.
Hanna’s Plum Dumplings
1 cup + 3 tablespoons (5 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) cold butter, divided
8 ounces farmer cheese or dry ricotta, grated
1 large egg
8 prune plums (or apricots, a traditional and outstanding variation)
8 sugar cubes, preferably Demerara
1 1/2 Cups (4 ounces) fine bread crumbs
About 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
Mix the dough in a food processor or by hand. Cut half the butter (4 tablespoons) into the flour until it looks like meal. In a separate bowl, beat the egg and stir in the cheese; add this mixture to the flour and work together to form a firm dough. Scrape it out onto a lightly floured counter and knead a few moments. You may prepare this dough up to 4 hours ahead, sealing it in a container and reserving at cool room temperature until dumpling time.
Fill a large pot with water, cover, and set over high heat.
Use a small pointy knife to slit open each plum. Excise the pit and install a sugar cube in its stead.
On a lightly floured counter, roll the dough out with the palms of your hands into a log about 8 inches long. Bisect the log, then cut each half into four equal pieces. Roll each lump out into a disk about 3 inches in diameter and then wrap it around a plum, sealing the edges of the pastry together securely. Good closure is key to success.
When the water is boiling vigorously, ease half the dumplings in. As soon as they begin to resurface, turn the heat down to a low boil and set your timer for 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a medium sauté pan on medium heat. Add the crumbs and stir to coat with butter. Continue stirring until toasty, crisp, and golden brown then remove from the heat.
When the dumplings’ time is up, use a slotted spoon to remove them to a colander to drain for a minute. Put the remaining dumplings in to boil.
Roll the drained dumplings gingerly in the toasted crumbs and transfer to dessert bowls. Sift confectioners’ sugar over them generously and serve instantly. Repeat with the remaining dumplings when they are ready.
Serves 4 as supper.
Finding the plums.
As usual, the most promising starting point for getting your hands on any item of local produce is the website of Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP), which makes it easy to find the closest plum orchard to your door.
Of the orchardists I have been lucky enough to meet, Ed Silvia of E.L.Silvia Farm in Dighton, stands out as a passionate devotee of the plum. The first time I ran across him, at the Buzzards Bay Farmers’ Market, he enthused, “Since I was little, I’ve always loved plums. I would eat them green, I would eat them ripe, I would eat them rotten.” That’s true plum-love on a European scale.
Ed grows three varieties of prune plum so that he has a supply early (mid-August) and late (mid-September). Call first, especially at the season’s fringes, to be sure.
2621 County Street, Dighton, MA
Growing the plums.
Plum-orchardist Ed Silvia commends European plums to the home grower in southeastern Massachusetts because they are low-maintenance compared to the fussy, sensitive hybrids.
FEDCO offers a number of European plums selected for the northeast, including Stanley, a good choice for the dumplings, as well as others of heirloom interest like Damsons and Greengages. Also apricots. The FEDCO catalog and website contain troves of information to get the incipient orchardist underway.