Plum-Rosemary Upside-Down Cake: Lessons from Law School and Baking

It was 10:45pm on a Tuesday night and I stood at my kitchen counter, mixing batter for Mark Bittman's Plum-Rosemary Upside-Down cake and drinking beer. This was not my normal course of activity on a week night, but after beating my head against the wall for hours, trying to decide the course of the rest of my life (like you can do that in one day), I needed to pull myself together and baking seemed like the only solution. (If you’re wondering what all of the obsessing was about, I’m in my last year of law school and we’ve begun the mad hustle of job hunting. Need I say more?) 

Baking requires very precise measurements, temperature control, and mixing methods; in other words, you have to pay attention to detail and follow instructions carefully. I have never been a great baker precisely because I don’t follow instructions. I improvise and skip steps, substitute ingredients, or otherwise pretend that I know what I'm doing when in fact I'm completely clueless. Thankfully, the end results usually taste good, but hardly ever look like their photographed counterparts in the recipe books. Still, when you live in a tightly-controlled world where competition is a subtly cultivated art form and you’re inundated with piles of reading and a general sense that, if you make one mistake, your entire life will be over, it's important to take the pressure off of your poor mind and focus on something physical. And that's why I love baking. I step into the kitchen, dip my hands into a gorgeous mound of sticky, gooey, stretchy dough, and just let it all go.

So there I was, at 10:45pm on a school night, baking cake after a day of obsessing over my future. And perhaps because the future seemed so precipitously uncertain at that moment, I followed the instructions with more care than I normally would. Gradually, as I carefully chopped, sprinkled, mixed, and poured, I felt myself relax. And lo and behold, when I took my cake out of the oven - at precisely 12:00am - it actually looked fairly nice! And it tasted so good! The flavors are nicely balanced, with a soft sweetness from the plums, a sharper sweet kick from the sugar, and a heady yet not overpowering aroma of rosemary. The cake itself is moist, thick, and a bit buttery, and there is a thin creamy layer just underneath the fruit, while the outside crust is delightfully crunchy.

So here's the lesson I re-learned on Tuesday night: in law school (and life), as in baking, it's important to work hard, pay attention, follow instructions, and then just let it all go – because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how it all turns out. The important thing is to do what you love and have fun while you’re at it.

And here’s the recipe, courtesy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) melted butter
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
4 or 5 ripe sweet plums, halved, pitted, and cut into chunks
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan with butter. Sprinkle the brown sugar and rosemary evenly over the bottom of the pan and spread the plums in the pan in a single layer. Set the pan aside. (Note: I didn’t have brown sugar, so I substituted unbleached cane sugar and only used 1/8 cup instead of ½, which gave the cake just the right amount of sweetness – I had a feeling that a full ½ cup would be too sweet for my taste. The cane sugar worked just fine, but I’m sure the brown sugar would give the cake a much lovelier glow on top).

2. In one bowl, whisk the melted butter, buttermilk, eggs, and sugar together until foamy. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Then, slowly add the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until they are well incorporated.

3. Spread the batter evenly over the plums. Bake for about 50-60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown. Let the cake cool for 5 minutes. (Note: my oven seems to be hotter than average, so my cake cooked in 45 minutes. Just keep an eye out.)

4. Now comes the hard part: turning the cake upside-down. Loosen the cake by running a knife around the edge of the pan. Place the serving plate you plant to use on top of the pan and flip the pan so that it is upside down, with the plate on the bottom, supporting the cake. Lift the pan gently - the cake should slide out onto the plate. If it doesn't, use a plastic spatula to gently pull the cake away from the sides of the pan and repeat the above process. If any of the fruit is stuck to the pan, simply place it back on top of the cake. 

As a final note, I was curious to see if anyone else had blogged about baking this cake, as so many people love Mark Bittman’s recipes, and here is a fabulous rendition (far, far better than mine!) from Nicola at Unhip Squirrel. Her blog is an amazing collection of recipes, especially sweets, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the art of baking from her.

Yours truly, one bite at a time,



Stephanie Venezia said...

Well done! Cake was delicious and the festival looks like a blast!

Radina Valova said...

Thanks, Steph!

Nicola @ unhip squirrel said...

Hey!!! I just found your post because, embarrassingly enough, I googled myself (we all do it!). I'm so flattered by your comments about my blog! Your version of this cake looks wonderful. I can't wait to check out your other recipes. Keep in touch :)

Radina Valova said...

Hi Nicola, thanks for stopping by to say hi! I really do enjoy your blog, your recipes are delicious and inventive but they seem easy enough for people (like me) who are somewhat new to cooking. Can't wait to try your buttermilk scones with crispy pancetta and bacon!