Ripe seasonal fruit and a buttery pastry can take many forms: as a tart, a pie, a crumble, shortbread or a cake. But my go-to this time of year is the torte. Not the authentic torte, inspired by the Italian word "torta," meaning cake, the traditional airy sponge cake filled with richly flavored cream. No, I'm talking about one of the easiest desserts for highlighting the late summer and early fall tree fruits that are now at their peak.
My favorite recipe is a spinoff of the famous Marian Burros Original Plum Torte, which first appeared in the New York Times in 1982, continued to run every September for the next 10 years and is still making headlines. (A recent Food52 article was titled "40 Years Later, This Plum Torte Is Still the Best Ever.") It was a dessert my Aunt Rose swore by, and when a friend mentioned it last week, I decided to give it a try.
This particular torte is neither light nor airy and it does not involve whipping egg whites for a lofty texture or creating a rich lush filling. Instead, the recipe calls for just a few basic pantry ingredients. Plus, it does not require special pans or fussy techniques. In fact, it is so simple the whole thing can be memorized and created on the fly. It's just the dessert for these busy weeks as we've adjusted into our fall routines.
You can still find the last of our season's plums at farmers markets, and all sorts of apples and pears have just arrived. There are still nice peaches and nectarines coming from Colorado. This torte will accommodate them all with style and grace. The batter is so forgiving that the fruit need not be perfect. The underripe, overripe and bruised will all work, thanks to the recipe's generous balance of sugar and butter. While the torte bakes, the fruits' juices melt into the batter, adding their colors and flavors.
A big warm slice is perfect with morning coffee or late afternoon tea. Pile on the whipped cream for a cozy dessert. Double the recipe for a crowd or cut in half if it's just you (or two). What's best is that the basic batter is a great platform for a range of variations, so go ahead and make it plain or fancy, but do make it your own.
Once you've mastered the basic recipe, try these variations:
Vary the flavors
• Omit the vanilla and add 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom and 1 tablespoon of orange zest.
• Omit the vanilla and add 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger and 1 tablespoon of grated lemon zest.
• Add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg.
Vary the flour
• The original recipe calls for a 1 cup of flour; I like to reduce the amount to 1/2 cup and add 1/2 cup of cornmeal.
• Substitute all-purpose flour with bolted flour or whole-wheat flour.
• Substitute all-purpose flour with medium or light rye flour.
• For a gluten-free option, substitute 1 1/4 cup of oat flour for the all-purpose flour.
Vary the fruit
• Substitute about 2 to 2 1/2 cups cranberries, pitted cherries or berries for the stone fruit (or use a mix of fruit)
• Instead of plums, substitute about 1 pound of apples and/or pears, sliced or diced.
• Use any combination of frozen fruit, drained and tossed with a tablespoon of flour before adding to the batter.
Vary the sweetener
• Replace the granulated sugar with maple, brown or coconut sugar or use a mix.
• Replace the granulated sugar with 1/2 cup honey and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees (so that it bakes at 325 degrees).
This torte can take many shapes — bake it off in a 9-inch springform pan, a pie plate or a square or round cake pan. It will keep for about two days, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature. Don't bother freezing; it just won't taste as good. Simply whip up another with whatever you like or happen to have on hand.
Early Autumn Fruit Torte
Makes a 9-inch torte.
In this super-simple recipe, cornmeal adds color and texture and maple sugar gives the torte subtle caramel notes. A spinoff of the original by Marian Burros of the New York Times, it's easily adapted to whatever fruit is in season. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) softened butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
• 3/4 c. maple or brown sugar, plus a little more for sprinkling on top
• 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1/2 c. fine grind cornmeal
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• Pinch salt
• 1 tsp. vanilla
• 2 eggs
• 4 plums, halved, pits removed and cut into slices
• 4 peaches, halved, pits removed and cut into slices
• 1/4 c. chopped pecans, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch tart, pie or cake pan.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Stir in the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, vanilla and eggs, then beat until the batter is smooth. Transfer into the prepared pan. Arrange the plum and peach slices over the batter. Scatter the pecans over the top. Sprinkle with a little more maple sugar.
Bake until the torte is firm and the fruit is bubbly, about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove and allow to stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.