November 13, 2002
Apple Crisp and Plum Torte
posted by Nadia

Right. So I made two desserts today -- an apple crisp for after dinner, and a plum torte for breakfast the next day. Extravagant? Yes. Delicious? Definitely.

I had bought the plums a while ago, and I needed to use them before they went bad. I used them to make an incredibly delicious, absolutely foolproof, and miraculously easy plum torte that my mom has been making for years and that I've made at least ten times. I cannot stress enough how delicious and simple and frankly addictive this torte is. It comes from a Marian Burros and Lois Levine recipe that apparently appeared in the New York Times every fall in reponse to popular demand, since 1981. After many years of this, the editors presumably had had enough, and informed their readers that they would publish the plum tart recipe one last time before retiring it forever. The recipe was printed with "cut-here" marks around it, which I dutifully followed when cutting it out and pasting it into my recipe book. It hasn't appeared in the paper since. Below, I've reproduced it in its entirety for the readers of, for whom I hope the tart will become a perennial favorite.

I also made individual apple crumbles, inspired by this Wednesday's recipe in (you guessed it) the New York Times Food section. Despite the recipe's admonition to the contrary, I used Macintosh apples. I love their flavor, and I wasn't too worried about mushiness/soginess because I was baking them in small ramekins for a relatively short period of time. For the topping, I used oats, flour, sugar, butter, and walnuts in essentially random proportions. Then I baked it for a while at some temperature or another. (C'mon, part of the charm of crisp-making is that you don't really need to follow a recipe). The finished product was great -- the apples had shrunk a bit and let out some of their juices, the topping was crisp, and there was just a hint of syrupy goodness bubbling out from the crust. Mmm.

Plum Torte
(from the New York Times a long time ago, but originally from Marian Burros and Lois Levine's The New Elegant But Easy Cookbook)

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 50-60 minutes

1/2 c. unsalted butter
3/4 c. sugar
1 c. unbleached flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch salt (optional, says the NYT; but recommended, says Nadia)
2 eggs
24 halves pitted purple plums (Nadia's note: you probably won't need this many, unless you're using the really small plums. I typically use a couple of larger plums or nectarines/peaches and cut them into sixths or eighths)
Sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon for topping

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and eggs, and beat well.
3. Spoon batter into a spring form of 8, 9, or 10 inches. Place the plum halves/piecs skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with about 1 tsp. of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
4. Bake one hour. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired (Nadia's note: trust me, the only think you will desire when this comes out of the oven is to eat the whole thing straight away). Or (yes!) cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.
5. To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat briefly at 300 degrees.

Nadia's note: The recipe also offers a variation for an apple-cranberry torte, which I'm not including here because I've never made it and I can't imagine it's as good as with the plums. One of the best parts of the plum torte is that it gets crisp on the top, but the inside remains extraordinarily moist because the juicy plums sink into the batter. My guess is that most apples aren't moist enough to keep the torte's consistency as wonderful as it is when made with plums, apricots, nectarines, or peaches.

Steak and Lentil Salad

We had a simple, rustic dinner tonight. Had we also cooked fresh-cut french fries, it would have made a lovely bistro dish ... but the meal was quite good nonetheless, particularly with a glass of chianti.

The main element of the dish was a pretty nice cut of ribeye steak found at the market. For those of you who don't know, the ribeye is pretty much our favorite cut of beef. Also known as rib steak (or Delmonico steak, though purists may disagree), the ribeye is a damn fine piece of meat. We try to buy it with the rib in so that we can trim it ourselves, but in many markets it's difficult to find it this way. Unless you go to a reputable butcher, the ribeye you find in your local supermarket will probably be cut no more than an inch thick, with most of the exterior fat removed, and inconsistent marbling within. I consider this to be an absolute travesty.

A good ribeye should be thick enough to get a good searing on both sides while still remaining rare or medium-rare in the center. I think about an inch-and-a-half is pretty good -- any thicker and it ends up being more meat than a single person can handle. The marbling, which is what really distinguishes this cut from most other steaks, should be pretty even throughout, and there should be a good layer of fat on the outer rim that you can trim to your liking. A picture right now would really be helpful, but counsel forbids it due to copyright issues. Sorry, folks.

Carl is really the steak-cooker of the family (I'm usually too impatient), but I know how to do it in theory. After salting and peppering liberally, sear the steak over medium or medium-high heat until it forms a nice crust -- about 4 or 5 minutes, then do the other side. How do you know when it's done? Touch the center of the steak with your finger (fine, fine, a set of tongs will work too) to find out how cooked it is. I know there's some sort of "formula" to help you figure it out (it involves making a fist and feeling the soft part between your thumb and index finger as your fist tightens and loosens), but I'm too lazy to use it or to explain it. You can look it up on the internet if you're really curious. Besides, after you've cooked a few steaks you'll be able to tell on your own without staring dumbfounded at your fist and poking it.

In any case. We had steak and lentil salad for dinner. The lentil salad is loosely based on a recipe found in Gourmet magazine, but I simplified it a bit. I've reproduced my own version below.

Warm Lentil Salad

Combine and bring to a boil:
1/2 c. lentils
3-4 c. water
half an onion (cut into two quarters, so it can be removed later)
a couple of whole garlic cloves
a bay leaf
a whole sprig of thyme
a couple of parsley stems

Simmer all this until the lentils are almost cooked through, about half an hour. While you're waiting for the lentils to cook, make a vinaigrette in your serving bowl of:
1 Tb. white wine or champagne vinegar
1 1/2 Tb. mustard (Dijon or country-style is best)
a spoonful or two of the lentil cooking liquid
1/4 c. olive oil (or warm bacon fat -- you can then crumble the cooked bacon and add it to the salad at the end)

Finely chop 1 or 2 carrots, 1 stalk of celery, and some parsley. About 3-5 minutes before the lentils are done, add half the chopped carrots to the cooking liquid. Add the rest of the carrots, the celery, and parsley (and bacon, if you're using it) to the vinaigrette.

When the lentils and carrots are done, pull out the onion, garlic, and herbs and drain the carrots and lentils. Add the hot lentils and carrots to your vinaigrette and toss, seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.