The perfect prune cake
By (Ukjent person)
Advertiser Food Editor
By (Ukjent person)
Say "prune cake" today and you get a look: Prunes? In cake?
Except, that is, if you're talking to an old-time Islander. Then what you get is memories. Memories of plates of thick slices of prune cake, heavily iced with light, fluffy frosting, or with creamy rich butter buttercream, sitting in the center of lu'au tables. Memories of neighbors, calling a soft "huuuuuiii" though the back door, and handing over a fresh-baked, three-layer prune cake as an offering after a death in the family. Memories of Ma or Grandma in the kitchen, patiently pitting prunes and poaching them in hot water to soften the dried fruit.
The Food for Thought column has received many requests for prune cake recipes from readers like Bob Lee, Judy Lee and Charlie Makinney. Actually, these were more like heartfelt cries, people yearning for a cake like their mom or grandmother used to make. The operative words were dense, dark and moist — not light and fluffy like today's store-bought cakes.
Edna Mae Gouveia Esona knows just what they mean. The Wahiawa woman recalls helping her mother, Alice Perreira Gouveia, to make prune cakes when the family lived in Kelia Plantation Camp on Kaua'i during her small-kid time. Gouveia was famous for her prune cake, her frequent contribution to family parties, baby showers and such. She made sure her daughters knew the recipe. "We had to be right there, with her, so we could learn, yeah?," Esona recalled.
When you went to a lu'au in the '40s or '50s, says Lani Kam Chu, "cake was the first thing you saw — all kine cakes, but always prune cakes, prune cakes with apricot frosting, peach frosting, like that. The aunties would make, and then they cut them up and put all different kinds on plates or platters and put cake all down the table. Ho! Make you hungry, but my mom would slap your hand if you took cake before you ate your food!"
Chu, originally from Lahaina but now living in Honolulu, said it was also common to bake prune cakes the thickness of brownies, which would be cut into small squares and given to wedding guests as groom's cake favors. "How many times when I was a teenager, I would have to go help some cousins before a wedding — cut up the cake, wrap 'em in foil or cellophane and tie up with net and ribbon. I don't think anybody does that anymore. But we used to like to do it because we got to eat cake!"
Esona and Chu both noted that homemade cakes were standard at parties then. "Not like today, the cake is probably Costco or a caterer, and it's probably yuck," said Esona, who worked in a bakery and has high standards.
They concurred that prune cakes were probably popular because the fruit wasn't particularly expensive (as compared, say, to candied fruit or even canned fruit) and prunes not only sweetened cakes but helped keep them moist — from-scratch cakes have a tendency to dry out quickly.
Esona sent her mother's cake recipe to The Advertiser, and it was among half a dozen I baked in the search for the old-time prune cake and among three that made it to a final tasting by Advertiser staff. That cake — baked in three thin layers, lightly spiced and exceptionally moist and tender — was the favorite of six of the 12 tasters, followed by a much different style of cake sent in by a reader who signed only N. Terazawa. Terazawa's version pairs a quartet of spices with a goodly amount of cocoa for a very deep flavor, and makes a gigantic, lu'au-size sheet.
We tested these recipes using butter, but Esona said her mother always used margarine, which actually may help to produce a more dense result. And caterer Cynthia Chun, who also sent in a prune cake recipe, said she prefers margarine because, "the cake is already so rich, to me you're wasting your butter."
Then there was the question of frosting. Many Islanders argue that the only correct frosting for a prune cake is 7-Minute Icing with chopped prunes stirred into it, a fluffy and light cooked frosting made with corn syrup. Others recall butter-confectioner's sugar frostings, often with drained, canned fruit added. (This dates back to a time when "haole" fruits such as peaches and apricots were rarely seen fresh in Island markets, and canned fruit was considered a treat.) A more modern twist is a cream-cheese and butter frosting, like the one usually paired with carrot cake.
My vote went to butter frosting with crushed pineapple in it — a real palate picker-upper. However, most of the tasters preferred a plain butter frosting or the cream-cheese version. Chun thinks the lighter 7-Minute Icing is the best choice.
One thing that might contribute to a prune cake revival is that they're a lot less work than they used to be, and that the recipe is very forgiving — more like a quick bread than a finicky cake likely to flop or overbake. The cakes are less work because today, prunes come already pitted, and are much more moist and soft than they used to be; you don't need to poach them.
Still, said Esona, who no longer bakes now that her four children are grown and gone: "If I did bake a prune cake, I don't know who'd eat it. They're like, 'Mom, PRUNE cake???' "
Reach (Ukjent person) at (unknown address).