I like the improvisation of cooking and the precision of baking," said the bearded man in the Jurassic Park T-shirt. He swept the straight edge of a plastic scraper across the rim of a stainless-steel measuring cup, trimming it down to exactly one cup of flour (unbleached, all-purpose).
"You can cook a piece of chicken, but it will still be just a piece of chicken," he added. "I prefer the alchemy of baking."
"Alchemy?" I asked. "Isn't that the practice of transforming, uh, stuff, into ... "
"Gold," he said.
He would know, being Greg Patent, a prolific food writer whose first book on baking, Baking in America, won a James Beard award in 2003. A Baker's Odyssey, his second book on baking — and 10th book overall — is due out this December.
Patent should have won another award for the column he wrote for the local daily in Missoula, Montana, wherein he recounted a special recipe he got from New York Times food columnist Marian Burros (who was given the recipe soon after her wedding).
This recipe, for a torte made with Italian prune plums, became, literally, the talk of the town. Folks were gushing about the torte at the bank, waxing about it around the barbecue, recounting their pleasures, glaze-eyed, at the check-out line as they shopped for more baking supplies for more tortes!
When I asked Patent if I could watch him make this torte, he agreed. "Just bring a pound of Italian prune plums (12 to 16 plums)," he said. "I've got the rest."
A note on prunes and plums: They are distinct categories of tree, both of whose fruits are called plums. Prune plums are smaller, denser, drier, very tasty, and longer-storing. Italian prune plums, those lovely purple oblong spheroids, are the most common prunes in the West.
For me, unlike Patent, baking is too exact a science on most days, and this day was no exception. My only task was to bring prune plums, and I failed.
At the time, the prune plums weren't quite ripe, so I stopped at the store, where my only choice was black plums (a round, juicy variety) from California. I bought a pound, thinking inexactly and improvisationally, unlike a baker, that they'd work. Had I known how important this exact choice of fruit is, I would have pursued those prune plums with relentless fervor — even to Wal-Mart if I had to.
Patent's eyebrows rose when he saw my black plums, but he was cool — perhaps in part because he had a torte from last year thawed and ready to warm in the oven. This was to verify Patent's incredible claims about how well this torte tolerates and recovers from prolonged freezing.
But first, we forged ahead with a fresh, wrong-fruit torte, just to see what would happen.
He transferred two eggs from the fridge to a cup of warm water. Cold eggs can curdle when they're mixed into the batter, he explains.
He washed, halved, and sliced my wrong fruits and removed the pits, which disappeared through a sliding trapdoor in his cutting board. (If you have the correct fruit, halve the plums and lay them cut-side down.)
In a medium bowl, he whisked that exact cup of flour together with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon Rumford brand baking powder.
In another bowl, he beat a stick of room-temperature butter until smooth, added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/4 cup of sugar, and continued beating until the butter was ready to accept more sugar. Beating constantly, he gradually added another 3/4 cup sugar. When smooth and creamy — creamed, as it were — he beat in the warm eggs, one at a time, disappearing the shells through the sliding trapdoor in his cutting board.
He added the flour/salt/powder mixture ("dry ingredients") to the egg/butter/sugar ("wet ingredients"), and worked it all into a batter with a wooden spoon, then scraped the batter into a buttered 9-inch springform pan. He arranged the halved plums on top and squeezed a teaspoon of fresh lemon over it, followed by a sprinkled mixture of 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
While the torte baked (one hour, center of the oven that was pre-heated to 350 degrees), we sat down and tasted last year's model — which had been frozen wrapped in foil. (To reheat, let the torte thaw to room temperature, preheat oven to 300 degrees, and heat for 10 minutes.)
As claimed, the torte was still fabulous at one year old!
After this year's torte had cooled on a wire rack, Patent went around the edge with a knife to ensure nothing stuck to the side of the pan, then unclamped and removed the springform side.
The wrong-fruit torte was ... well ... it was good. But it wasn't the same.
For confirmation, I brought both tortes to a friend known for his sharp sense of taste.
Without telling this friend, whom I'll call Old Tasteful, anything about these two tortes, I let him try last year's model.
"Oh, I like it very much," Old Tasteful said. "Except I want more oven-fresh crisp on top."
Next, he tried this year's model, which of course did have that fresh-out-of-the-oven crisp.
"This one is less satisfactory," Old Tasteful said. "Something's wrong with the fruit."
Ari LeVaux is a writer for The Missoula Independent, where this article first appeared.