The Dinette Teller – 16. Cultural Misunderstandings: The Italian plum-less “Plumcake”

Plum cakes made with dried fruits are a traditional and common dessert in English-speaking countries. Plum cakes made with fresh plums were introduced by migrants from other traditions in which the primary ingredient of the cake was the plums.

Since the 18th century, Plum Cake was referred in England to a type of fruitcake made with raisins and currants. Furthermore, in 1660, this type of dry fruits were called plums in English.

The various types of dried fruit (grapes, currants and raisins) were common in the English kitchens through trade with The Levant and Mediterranean. Preparing the fruit to be imported required and an immense amount of labor taking into account the methods that were used to pick, dry, pack and export it. Over time, it became available through “trouble-free” imports from Australia, South Africa and California.

Plum cakes became so popular, that in 1881 Colonel Henry-Herbert said that “a good English plum cake…is a national institution”.

The British plum cakes actually derive from the Pflaumenkuchen or Zwetschgenkuchen, which are part of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.

However, the name “Plum cake” spread around the world, and other plum-based cakes are now found in French, Italian and Polish recipes. But the funny fact is that in Italy the name “Plumcake” actually describes a cake without plums!

Let’s see how could this happen…!?

The traditional Italian plumcake is easily recognized. It is a very soft cake with a texture in between a doughnut and a sponge cake. This type of cake has a rectangular shape, using a rectangular mold that is also used for loaves of bread.

The main ingredients are white flour, eggs, sugar and baking powder. However, any other ingredients can be added depending on preferences. Usually, the traditional Italian plumcake includes yoghurt and raisins, but also chocolate chips or lemon, wild berries, pear and so on.

 

In Italy, we also have the savoury version of the plumcake, since the taste of the basic dough is neutral and very similar to a soft bread.  Savoury Plumcakes can be made with ham, bacon, carrots, cheeses, vegetables.  Some people also add leftovers to give them a good use!

So… what is exactly the Italian Plumcake?!

Well, probably the main misunderstanding is related to the pronunciation of the English word. In fact, the most similar British recipe to the Italian Plumcake is actually the Pound Cake!

The Pound Cake was first seen in the 18th century and it is prepared with one pound of every ingredient: sugar, flour, egg and butter. It was a very simple recipe that everyone could make, even those that didn´t know how to write or read.

In France, there is a similar cake, called “Gateaux Quatre Quart”, meaning “Four Fourths Cake”.

The famous chef Pellegrino Artusi defined the Italian Plumcake “the sweet liar” since its name was misleading.

Nowadays, in Italy, the word “Plumcake” doesn’t represent a single recipe, but a category of baked products, characterized by the peculiar rectangular shape, which is common in a wide range of sweet and savoury recipes.

 

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