Quetsche as quetsche can
In one of the weirdest coincidences ever, the Food section's Betty Hallock and I both, unbeknown to each other, did the nuttiest thing ever -- we baked on what felt like the hottest weekend in history. What possessed each of us, independently, to fire up the oven? An elusive little fruit known variously as the French sugar plum, the Italian prune plum and, in French, the quetsche (pronounced kwetch). My first close encounter with the fruit was in the early '90s, when my friend Yves brought a tarte aux quetsches to dinner at my apartment in New York. It was simple, gorgeous and fabulous, and I never forgot it. Every year I mean to run a story about the fruit in Food -- and re-create that marvelous tart -- but the season for the plum is very short, and you never know when they're coming until suddenly you see them in the market. I hadn't yet seen them here, but last week Yves sent a picture of a tarte aux quetsches he had just made, so I was on the lookout.
Yves is no food professional, though he bakes like one, and he knows quite a bit about food and wine. In France, he tells me, the quetsche comes from the Alsace region. Besides being baked into tarts, they're also eaten raw or made into compotes. "The latter," he writes, "are awesome." (Yves is the only person I know who uses "latter" and "awesome" in the same sentence.) He was nice enough to send me his mother's recipe (which I've adapted; you'll find it after the jump). The secret ingredient is a little Slivovitz (plum brandy) sprinkled over the top before baking. "Actually, the brandy is very optional," writes Yves. "The sugar on top is important, as it helps the fruit render its juice, which then coats the dough nicely."
Long story long, I stumbled on the plums at my own neighborhood Whole Foods on Saturday, so gleefully picked up three bagfuls. I found a bottle of Serbian Slivovitz at Vicente Foods (8 years old!). I made the pâte sucrée for the crust on Saturday, and Sunday morning, I baked.
This morning, Betty came into the office and told me she did a crazy thing over the weekend -- she baked! What did she bake? Well, a friend had given her some French sugar plums a few days before, she said, and hot as it was, they moved her to turn on the oven too. She baked them into a clafouti.
So they're out there, those inspiring sugar plums or prune plums or whatever you want to call them. Go out and grab 'em while the grabbing's good -- and let's hope the temperature falls tomorrow!
Italian prune plums, $1.79 per pound at select Whole Foods markets. Navip Slivovitz, $25.99 at Vicente Foods, 12027 San Vicente Blvd.; (310) 472-5215.
Photos by Leslie Brenner, Wylie Peremarti and Betty Hallock
Yves Beauvais' tarte aux quetsches
Make a pâte sucrée. Add a pinch of salt to about a cup and a quarter of flour and a tablespoon of sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add 7 tablespoons chilled, cut-up butter and pulse till the texture's like oatmeal. Add a lightly beaten egg and a tablespoon of milk and process just till it forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and chill at least a couple of hours.
Roll out the dough, fit it into a tart pan with a removable bottom, and prick the dough. Cut a lot of Italian prune plums into quarters (cut in half first and remove the pit) and arrange them in concentric circles in the uncooked shell. Fit them really tightly, as they shrink when they cook. You'll need more than you think -- I used two bagfuls. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar and a little Slivovitz or other plum brady, if you like. (Though if you have a newer gas oven that doesn't vent like the old ones, skip that, or the uncooked brandy could ignite the pilot.) Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until the crust is golden. Let cool, then eat.