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It's The Time Of Year To Go Plum Crazy

Growing up, I knew it was fall when the house smelled like warm cinnamon. Just as summer ended, my mother began baking multiple pans of Aunt Fanny's plum kuchen. She used odd-looking fruit she called Italian prune plums. Some tarts she served directly from the oven; many she froze. Then, as suddenly as it started, the baking frenzy was over. The plum tart season is short.

I grew up, left home and forgot about the fragrant coffee cake until I was marketing one day in the very early fall and saw Italian prune plums in the produce section. That week, food writer Marion Burros printed a recipe in The New York Times for a plum torte. It was so popular, she ran the recipe every year until 1995. It called for Italian prune plums.

My childhood came flooding back, and I rummaged through my recipes until I found, in my mom's handwriting, Aunt Fanny's kuchen. My mother's recipe was made in a jelly-roll pan, while Burros' was in a springform pan. Otherwise, the recipes were almost exact replicas. Burros got the recipe just after she was married and, since we're both women of a certain age, it was probably a common recipe of a certain time. It's a homey, non-fussy, easy recipe, perfect for a busy world.

I followed Burros' use of the smaller pan, made a few adjustments to my mother's recipe (less butter, less sugar) and began what became an annual tart-baking binge. These tarts are so easy to make and freeze so well that you can make a lot of them in the brief time the plums are available. This is worth doing.

Italian prune plums appear with the first yellow leaves on the trees and are gone when the pumpkins are overflowing their patches — so you have to act fast. Look for them at farmers markets, supermarkets, warehouse stores and specialty stores. They're not always easy to find.

The purple-black, egg-sized Italian prune plums are far easier to cook with than their summer cousins. Most plums are clingstone, meaning it's difficult to separate the flesh from the pit. It clings. Italian prune plums, however, are freestone and easy to pit.

Because they're firmer than other plums, Italian prune plums keep their shape in tarts, pies and cakes. They are also less juicy than other plums, so they produce less liquid and more intense flavor. These properties have made them baking favorites.

Then there's the color. The yellow flesh of the raw plum turns a gorgeous fuchsia when cooked. I made a sorbet that turned a deep, rich burgundy color.

These are the plums that star in Czech plum dumplings, Italian plum cake, French clafouti, jams of all nationalities, crisps and compotes.

While they lend themselves perfectly to desserts, Italian prune plums also are good in savory dishes. I've made a sweet-and-sour plum sauce for pork or veal chops. A few diced plums make a bowl of quinoa stand out.

They're also good to eat just out of the fruit bowl. I like their slight tartness.

When buying Italian plums, look for fruit that is firm but not hard. Avoid plums that are too soft, or that have wrinkled or rough skin, or brown spots. They will have a light coating that looks like chalk dust. That's a good thing.

Keep in mind that the time for Italian prune plums is short. Already, the season is almost over.

If you get some plums and start baking, though, you can have a freezer full of tarts to turn to on a cold winter day.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.