Seasons by the Sea: Fast, Fruity, Foolproof

The following three cakes are so easy and so good, you are going to cut them out and keep them forever
Mimi Thorisson’s Everyday Pear Cake is a rustic fall dessert option. Laura Donnelly

In summertime you can get away with slicing up a watermelon, dropping some berries in a bowl, or stopping at a farm stand for a fruit pie, and voila, dessert is done. But this time of year don’t you want to make a little more effort with a homemade dessert? The following three cakes are so easy and so good, you are going to cut them out and keep them forever. They are fast, fruity, and foolproof!

Let’s begin with one of the most iconic cake recipes ever published by The New York Times: Marion Burros’s plum torte. This recipe was given to her by her friend Lois Levine for their self-published 1960 cookbook “Elegant but Easy.” It was simply called “fruit torte,” because it is very adaptable to the seasons — blueberries and peaches in summer, plums in the fall. It was so popular The Times ran it every September from 1983 to 1989. In 1989 the newspaper was so tired of running it over and over that it printed it with a broken-line border and larger type and exhorted its readers to cut it out and laminate it. Not being able to leave well enough alone, it also later published a New Age Plum Torte that replaced the butter and eggs with bananas and egg substitute. Sounds ghastly. In 1994 there was an apple cranberry version and at one point a whole wheat one. Trust me, Ms. Burros’s original plum torte is the best.

A few months ago my friend Mona begged me to try to get the recipe for the Crow’s Nest’s olive oil cake. I was confident I could get it for her because chefs are usually pretty cool about sharing recipes with each other. 

I contacted the current chef and assured him it was strictly for my friend, not for publication. He said he would not give me the recipe, but said that it has been modified three times and is baked in a skillet. Thanks, pal. 

When it comes to research, I am a like a dog with a bone, so I took the next (which should have been first) logical step: I Googled “Crow’s Nest olive oil cake.” Duh. Lo and behold, the original recipe came from my friend Jeff Schwarz, who had been the chef at Crow’s Nest years ago. He had published it in his excellent blog for The Times’s T Magazine, “A Chef in the Field.” 

I have made this cake at least seven times in the last few months with a few minor changes of my own, and it is one of the easiest, best cakes ever. It literally takes five minutes to throw together.

The third recipe I have fallen in love with is a simple pear cake from “French Country Cooking” by Mimi Thorisson. The only fiddling around I have done with this recipe is experimenting with different varieties of pears. As the cake is mostly fruit, I have found that Bartletts are almost too juicy and watery. My favorite pear is Bosc, those brown-skinned ones that seem to take eons to ripen. Beware, even when they are ripe, they stay firm, so just buy some and let them sit out on the counter for about four or five days. I also serve the cake pre-sliced, sprinkled with additional confectioner’s sugar, and toasted up in the oven.

The first time I made the olive oil cake I found it to be quite oily — the recipe calls for a full cup of olive oil. It also tends to stick to the skillet, even a well-seasoned one, so I bake it in an enameled cast iron pan. I have made it in 12-inch, 10-inch, and 8-inch pans. They are all perfectly fine, as long as you adjust the cooking time. Mr. Schwarz’s original recipe calls for a 10-inch skillet. Be sure to use a very good, fruity olive oil, I like Arlotta and Frantoia brands. To serve, I also like to pre-slice each portion and heat it up so the almond flour edges crisp up and the citrus aromas waft about.

All three of these cakes are good for breakfast, teatime, or a rustic but grand dessert. And they all freeze beautifully. What more could you ask for? Perhaps a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream. . . .

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