Looking for an urban homesteading calendar of the basics for home and beyond? Look no further than Harriet Fasenfest’s A Householder’s Guide to the Universe (Tin House Books, 2010). This poetic guide provides the street-smarts needed to shop, garden, run a household and preserve and cook food according to the season. Follow Fasenfest into her home, her garden and her kitchen to discover the concrete tools every homesteader needs for sustainable change, all organized in an easy-to-use calendar. The following excerpt on European plum kuchen is taken from her August chapter under, “The Kitchen.”
I grew up eating this cake (Kuchen in German) made with a type of European plum, which, it turns out, grows wild all over Portland. Lucky us. But even if you don’t find them growing on the street, these plums have become ubiquitous in most regions of the United States and are often available at local markets. If you can’t find plums or you just don’t like them, this dough will stand up to many of the season’s fresh fruits. It serves as the base for a very simple open-face tart that just can’t go wrong. The trick here is to follow my mother’s instructions. In deference to the oral tradition, I will give it to you in her words.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly grease a 9-by-11-inch pan (“not too much because the dough has nice butter”).
2 cups unbleached white flour
3/4–1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature (1 stick cut into small chunks)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mom says: “I put the flour on a board or in a very large bowl. I add the salt and baking powder and mix. I add the butter to the flour, but just enough to cover the butter with the flour—don’t rub the butter into the flour, just mix the small pieces of butter into it enough to cover them. I make a well in the flour, put the sugar around the inside of the circle, add the 2 eggs and vanilla in the middle and then I mix the eggs and vanilla a little with my hand and slowly add the sugar and flour in until it comes together—not too much, because you don’t want to overwork this dough. I knead it very lightly and let it rest at least 20 minutes in the fridge before rolling out.”
Anyone who has ever made pasta by hand will get what she is saying. You may be a little unnerved the first time you try this process, since using your hand will probably be a little unfamiliar. Don’t be afraid. Even though the dough may be tacky at first, that is part of the process. Just add a little more flour and continue kneading. Eventually, it will reach a texture that will be suitable for rolling out. There is no way to understand the varying texture and quality of your ingredients unless you work with them on a regular basis. If you are using farm-fresh eggs, for example, you know no chicken lays the same size egg every time. This I why I say over and over that you must follow your ingredients, and not a static recipe.
Roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness to match the approximate size of your pan, or alternatively just pat the dough into the pan, patching up the pieces if they fall apart. If the dough has become a bit overworked, chill it for at least 15 minutes to allow the gluten in the dough to relax.
Okay, the dough is now in a 9-by-11-inch pan, or two pie pans, or whatever suits you. Mom has taught me to butterfly the plums, which means cutting them almost in half (leave them attached at one end), removing the pit, and then slicing each of the halves in half again but not down to the end. In essence you will have splayed or butterflied plum. This allows for more of the fruit juice to cook off during cooking, which you want. Of course, if you slice through the plums, don’t worry. Mom’s process is mostly for looks, but it does look nice.
Stagger the layers so the plums overlap one another in long rows (or in circles, if you are using pie pans). Once completed, pop the cake in the oven.
Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes. After removing from the oven, sprinkle the hot plums with a little sugar to bring out their juices. Doing this after the baking keeps the fruit from getting too “juicy” while baking. Cool before eating.
Reprinted with permission from A Householder's Guide to the Universe, by Harriet Fasenfest, published by Tin House Books, 2010.
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