Saturday, April 9, 2011

ingredient: PRUNES

It’s unfortunate when good things get co-opted by bad people. Bicycles and hipsters. Beer pong and frat boys. The Hamptons and the people who vacation there.

So it was with prunes and old people, or, even worse: prunes and the constipated. Just because dried plums contain a high level of dietary fiber, they’ve been cast as a laughable snack, as something that no one under seventy actually eats. But I’m here to say that your face doesn’t have to look like a prune for you to enjoy prunes. So young’uns, read on.

Prunes are simply dried plums. (And no one makes fun of plums, do they? So why make fun of prunes? Do we shun dried apricots? Not in the least.) Good prunes are soft, juicy, and chewy; not hard, stale, or difficult to swallow. They have a deep purple color and a sweet, raisin-plum taste. The only difference between prunes and table-plums are that the type of plums that are made into prunes are “freestone cultivars” meaning it’s easy to get the pit out of the fruit before drying.

So how did prunes get their reputation in the first place? Why exactly are they so good for your digestive tract? First, they contain a lot of dietary fiber, and we all know what that does. But to be more specific, when you release food from your body quickly, you take bile acid with you. As a result, your body produces new bile acid, and making bile acid uses up cholesterol, thus lowering your overall cholesterol count. Prunes also contain a high level of insoluble fiber. Friendly gut bacteria (the stuff in yogurt) love insoluble fiber. They scarf it down then release butyric acid, which is the main fuel for the cells of the large intestine. Friendly bacteria also kill disease causing bacteria.

You should be clued into prune’s other healthy properties by their deep purple, almost black color. Things of that hue typically contain extremely high levels of antioxidants. Prunes contain more antioxidants ounce per ounce than blueberries.

But you know, the main thing is that prunes taste good. They're good plain, but they can also add sweetness and depth to tagines, pastries, cakes, and even stuffing for roast chicken or pork.


Europeans don’t seem to have the same issues with prunes as we do. If you’ve ever eaten breakfast at a European hotel, you’ve probably encountered them as you made your way down the long, beautiful spread of food. If you're like me, you've noticed how a bowl of big fat prunes in their juice always seems to sit between the yogurt and the muesli. I go a little wild at these breakfast spreads (it’s all my favorite foods on one table!) including spooning quite a few sweet, juicy prunes into my bowl of tart yogurt.

Last week I saw a recipe for blueberry crumb cake in Dorie Greenspan’s impressive cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours. I was faced with a bit of a dilemma because I wanted crumb cake but I hate baking with frozen blueberries. I know- tons of people do it all the time and it seems like they should work just fine. But. But they just don’t taste the same as fresh, ripe blueberries and so I had to work with a substitute. The problem is that other obvious swaps such as peaches or nectarines are also sadly months away from being ripe. So I turned to prunes. The result was delicious.

As with all dried fruit, I reconstituted the prunes a bit in boiling water first. This helps them get extra juicy. Luckily Sunsweet now sells pretty juicy prunes anyway, as does St. Dalfour. The good starting texture + a little time in a water bath meant that the end result was just as soft and wonderful as fresh fruit. The cake in general was moist and lightly spiced. The crumb topping is amazing, and I upped the walnut ante (as Dorie says not to) because let's be honest: the topping is the best part. Yay for a new wintertime staple!


For the Topping:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped walnuts

For the Cake:

2 cups prunes, each prune cut in half
1 cup boiling water
2 cups plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8x8-inch pan.

Make topping:

In a food processor, add all ingredients for topping (except nuts) and pulse just until the mixture comes together to form clumps and is a bit sticky. Stir in the nuts. Put in refrigerator until ready to use.

Make cake:

In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 cups flour, the baking powder, soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Dust prunes with 2 tablespoons flour (to keep them from falling to the bottom)

In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add one egg, beat for one minute. Add other egg, beat for one minute. Add vanilla. Beat until incorporated. Add the buttermilk and flour mixture in alternating additions, beating until just incorporated. Stir in the prunes.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth across the top. Crumble topping across the top, letting it be uneven crumbs.

Bake for 55 minutes or until crumbs are golden and a cake tester comes out clean.

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