There’s never been such a humble recipe with so much gravitas as the Purple Plum Torte, a tender cake dotted with sunken soft sweet Italian plums. First published in The New York Times in 1983, the recipe, which came from Lois Levine and was written about by Marian Burros, became so wildly popular among Times readers that the paper published it annually for several years running, something they’d never done before or since. When I started working on the first edition of The Essential New York Times Cookbook in 2006, I surveyed Times readers for their favorite recipes, and the plum torte won by a landslide.
What is its secret? What has enabled it to hold up for decades, unscathed by food writers who love to iterate and tweak and transform classics? As I wrote in my book:
“I’ve thought a lot about why this torte struck such a chord with people: the answer, I think, is that it’s a nearly perfect recipe. There are only eight ingredients, all of which, except for the plums, you probably already have in your kitchen. There are just four steps, most of which are one sentence long. You need no special equipment, just a bowl, a wooden spoon, and a pan. The batter is like pancake batter, which most everyone is comfortable making. And baked plums are sweet and tart, making the flavor more complex and memorable than a hard-hitting sweet dessert.”
We originally published Marian’s recipe in 2013, and each year our community members add to the comments to share the ways they’ve adapted it, swapping out Italian plums for peaches, cherries, and blueberries, adding brandy, making it gluten-free. It’s almost impossible to mess up—which is also why it’s such an enduring fan favorite.
It is not a stretch to say that Marian’s plum torte played a part in the founding of Food52. When Merrill Stubbs and I set out to start our company, the plum torte and recipes
in its league (Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter, Barbara Kafka’s high-heat roast chicken) were top of mind. They shared the DNA of great home cooking—ingenuity and efficiency with thrilling results. Talented home cooks, who knew how to create these kinds of recipes, were plentiful and the internet gave us an easy way to reach them. A place where home cooks of all kinds could share their recipes, be celebrated, learn from each other, and get everything they needed for their kitchens, made so much sense.
And here we all are, still together, still baking the plum torte!
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Why do you think Marian’s plum torte remains so popular after all these years? Tell us in the comments below!
Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I’ve written several books, including “Cooking for Mr. Latte” and “The Essential New York Times Cookbook.” I played myself in “Julie & Julia” — hope you didn’t blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.