Vail High Country Baking: Give prunes a chance
September 18, 2012
Editor’s note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn’t. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips to make baking in the mountains successful.
“Move to Europe!” That’s what I’d tell any prune that would listen to me. Why? Because prunes are maligned in our country … most people pull a face and respond with a hardy “YUCK” when told they are about to eat a dessert that includes them. But Europeans hold the prune in high esteem. In fact, prunes, coupled with Armagnac, are a beloved combination featured in dishes throughout France and Italy. And, in my opinion, the two harmonize beautifully! Try this cake and you may see the prune in a whole different light.
I know what you’re thinking: Even if I can live with the prunes, I doubt I’ll try the recipe because of the Armagnac … I’ve never heard of it. Well, Armagnac is worth getting to know. It’s a marvelous French brandy with strong flavor and character and an aroma that is pure heaven … I love the smell that lingers in my kitchen whenever I cook with it. Buy a small bottle (the size sold on planes) if you need convincing. Or, if you don’t want to be introduced to it, you could substitute cognac, though it won’t duplicate the taste or scent.
The cake is a dichotomy: simple and rustic yet sophisticated and, clearly, adult; it won’t appeal to everyone. The texture is dominated by the cornmeal and soft prunes and the taste by the Armagnac. Served warm, it’s a heady experience.
An added bonus with this cake: It’s easy to make and surprisingly healthy … noticeably lower in fat and calories than most desserts.
Prune Armagnac Cake
(Adjusted for altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. Make in an 8-inch springform pan.)
1 cup soft pitted prunes
1⁄2 cup Armagnac or cognac
1⁄2 cup cornmeal
1⁄4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1⁄2 scant teaspoon baking powder (scant means slightly less than)
A pinch of salt
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar, preferably Baker’s
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft and cut into small pieces
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1⁄4 cup plain yogurt, (nonfat or lowfat is fine)
21⁄2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Cut each prune into three to four pieces and combine them with the Armagnac in a small bowl. Let them absorb the liquid for about two hours. You can speed up the process by covering the bowl with plastic wrap and microwaving for about half a minute at a medium-high setting. Remove from the microwave, remove the plastic wrap and let cool.
Separate the bottom and side of your springform pan and turn the bottom upside down, so the side with a turned-up edge is on the underside of the pan. This makes it easier to cut and remove the cake once it’s baked. Reform the pan.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Spray the pan with a mixture of vegetable oil and flour and, with your hand or a paper towel, spread it evenly.
Drain the prunes and save the liquid. Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl, whisk to combine and set aside. In a larger bowl, whisk the sugar, canola oil, and soft butter until they are well blended. Add the egg and egg white and whisk again until mixed. Add the yogurt, vanilla, and one tablespoon of the reserved Armagnac (save the rest) and stir until combined. Fold in the dry ingredients only until they are fully moistened. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, level and smooth it, and scatter the prunes over the top.
Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. This takes from 20-25 minutes in my oven. Remove the cake to a cooling rack, cool about 8-10 minutes and remove the side of the springform pan. If you are serving the cake immediately, brush the remainder of the Armagnac over the top. Stop when the cake gets sticky, even if you have some left over. If you are cooling and reheating it before serving, brush half of the Armagnac over the top and save the rest. Let the cake cool completely, then wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to two days. When you’re ready to serve it, reheat it in a 350 degree oven until it’s warm to the touch, brush the top with the rest of the Armagnac (stop if the cake gets sticky, even if you have some left over), and serve.
This is a variation of an Eating Well recipe.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with CMC’s Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.