Time travel worth it for this prune cake Hot legume
By Wanda Adams
Prune cake is a big favorite in my family home; it's my mother's favorite. It is also a reader favorite; I've had many requests for prune cake recipes, as they used to be a standard at lū'au and weddings.
Some time ago, a reader wrote in to ask for a very dense version of the cake, one her mother used to make, which resembled groom's cake (do people still serve groom's cake?). I called out to readers and got an avalanche of recipes. Then I went into a baking frenzy. One in particular was very good, but none had the texture I knew that particular reader was asking for.
And then, in February, I went to a Chinese New Year's party at the home of Cynthia Chun, an extraordinary cook. (Her grace and calm in the face of dozens of guests awed me; I'd be a basket case.)
There was a prune cake. And I'm convinced it's close to the one I'd been searching for. It's dense and rich and topped with an old-fashioned 7-Minute Icing, which is one of my favorite ways to top a cake.
To make this icing, however, you have to go back in time. You need a double boiler and you need a hand-held electric mixer. I once had to make one without the proper equipment for a photo shoot and it was a nightmare. If you have to, you can make a standard butter-and-confectioners' sugar icing and add prune pulp to it. But it's better with 7-Minute. (And, by the way, it often takes more time than seven minutes to get the egg whites and sugar to mount; just keep beating until it's glossy and thick.)
As for prune pulp, you may not be able to find the old-fashioned soft, bottled prunes. If you can't, buy dried prunes and stew them in water until they're soft and almost falling apart.
This recipe calls for sour milk; to sour milk, just add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk to "clabber" it (it will clump up a bit). You could also use buttermilk.
This cake is a large one, good for family parties. Cynthia suggests using a pan slightly larger than the standard 9-by-13. Your best bet is to buy one of those disposable aluminum party pans, which also make it easy to turn out the cake because they're so flexible. (However, be sure to put the pan onto a cookie sheet when you place it in the oven, to prevent breaking or cracking, or worse.) If you use a 9-by-13, don't overfill it; cake batter should never reach to more than three-quarters of the depth of the pan or you'll have a mess in the oven and a deflated cake. If you have to discard some of the batter, or bake a few cupcakes from it, so be it.
One other note: 7-Minute Icing has good staying power. You can make this cake in the morning and keep it at room temperature and serve it that evening; the icing develops a slightly sugary aspect that my friends have found quite interesting.
Here it is.
CYNTHIA CHUN'S PRUNE CAKE
• 2 cups sugar
• 2 cups margarine (4 blocks)
• 4 eggs
• 2 cups stewed prune pulp
• 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
• 3 teaspoons baking soda
• 2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup sour milk
• 1 cup chopped walnuts
For the frosting:
• 2 egg whites
• 1 cup sugar
• 3 tablespoons water
• 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
• 1 cup stewed prune pulp
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Oil, butter or pan-spray a large, rectangular cake pan.
Cream together sugar and margarine. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add prune pulp. In a separate bowl sift and mix dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, salt). Alternately beat in dry ingredients and milk. Add walnuts. Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake 45 minutes at 375 degrees until done (a toothpick or skewer stuck into the middle of the cake comes away clean). Cool on a rack. You can turn out cake or serve it from the baking pan.
To make the icing: In a double boiler over simmering water, combine egg whites, sugar, water and cream of tartar. Beat constantly with a hand-held electric mixer (or by hand, if you have the muscles of Superman) until the eggs peak and the icing is glossy and thick. Remove from heat and stir in stewed prune pulp. Ice cooled cake.
As to those two egg yolks you have left afterward, make yourself an old-fashioned egg sandwich while the cake bakes: cook the eggs in a frying pan with lots of pepper and a little salt, slather some good bread with mayonnaise, add the eggs and enjoy!