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Fresh fruit wakes up flavor of yellow cake

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

Who among us doesn't perk right up in the presence of a freshly baked yellow cake, especially when it has slices of juicy, fresh fruit adorning the top•

This elegant version is baked in a tart pan, giving it an impressive fluted edge. The buttery, tender crumb and fresh flavor are so evocative, you'll feel like you went to bed at home but woke up in the south of France.

I like to pull this recipe out when I have a few leftover plums lingering in my refrigerator after a visit to the farmers market.

Plum-Studded Cake

Preparation time : 15 minutes, plus 40 minutes to bake and time to cool

• Vegetable cooking spray, to coat pan

• 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (see Note )

• 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided

• 2 large eggs

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour, divided

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 cup milk

• 4 or 5 firm, ripe plums

• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

• Vanilla yogurt, for topping, optional

• Creme fraiche, for topping, optional

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat the bottom of a 10-inch springform tart pan with cooking spray.

In a medium-large bowl, beat the butter for several minutes with an electric mixer at high speed. Add 2/3 cup sugar and beat for several minutes longer. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each, then beat in the vanilla.

In a second bowl, combine 1 cup flour with the salt and baking powder, slowly mixing them together with a whisk.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in two installments, alternating with the milk. After each addition, mix from the bottom of the bowl -- just enough to blend -- with a spoon or a rubber spatula. Don't overmix.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, and spread it evenly into place. Let it rest while you prepare the topping.

Halve the plums, and remove the pits. You can leave the halves intact, or slice them again, lengthwise, into quarters. Place the plums in a small bowl, add the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon sugar, and toss to distribute. Then sprinkle in 1 tablespoon flour and toss again until the plum pieces are fairly evenly coated. Arrange them on top of the batter in a pattern of your design.

Put the pan on a baking tray, and place it in the middle of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the cake is golden and springy to the touch. Cool for at least 20 minutes before removing the rim of the springform pan. Without removing it from the bottom section of the tart pan, place the cake on a serving plate, and cool for another 10 minutes or so before slicing.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with vanilla yogurt or creme fraiche, if desired.

Makes 1 small cake (6 to 8 servings).

Note : Unwrap the butter ahead of time, and place it directly in the mixing bowl to soften.

Variations :

Mango Sunburst Cake

In this variation of the previous recipe, it looks as though the mangoes are literally bursting through the top of the cake. I can't imagine anyone having a bad day after being served this gorgeous cake for breakfast.

First prepare the mango as follows:

• 1 ripe mango (about 1 pound)

• 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cut the mango lengthwise into two pieces; then peel it, and cut the fruit off the pit. Measure 1/2 cup of the mango flesh, place it in a blender with the lemon juice, and puree until smooth. Cut the remaining mango into small slices or pieces the size of dice.

Make the Plum-Studded Cake recipe, with the following adjustments:

• Reduce the sugar to 1/2 cup

• Add 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest to the flour mixture

• Use the mango puree in place of the milk

• Replace the plums with the mango pieces

Peach or Fig-Studded Cake

Peaches or fresh figs can substitute for the plums.

Use 1 or 2 ripe peaches, peeled and thickly sliced -- or 4 or 5 firm figs, cut lengthwise into halves or quarters. Make the cake exactly as for the Plum-Studded Cake, simply replacing the plums with the peaches or figs.

Stone Fruit-Studded Cake

Celebrate the summer with a combination of peaches, plums and pitted cherries. For a dramatic effect, literally bedeck the entire top of the cake with as much fruit as can fit.

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