Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog July 2013-1940As you can perhaps intuit from the title of this post, this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge was just that for me: a challenge.  Called upon to incorporate stone fruit into a bread item, my mind went in a thousand directions at once and came up blank.  For me, stone fruits belong in pies and cakes.  The idea of combining cherries, or peaches, or apricots, or nectarines with the slow, yeasted rising of a bread was an odd one (although now that I’ve considered it, chocolate and cherry bread sounds fantastic.  Inspiration, if anyone still needs an idea for this month?).  So I struggled.  I wrote down ideas that sounded like madness:

Caramelized apricot yeasted mini loaves, baked in muffin tins  too weird.

Plum cobbler  not really a bread.

Peach upside down cake  not a bread at all!

Irish soda bread with… stone fruit… somehow…

And that was where I landed, nibbling at the edges of this idea.  It would be, I decided, a skillet bread: fruit caramelized in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, soda bread dough mounded atop it and then baked and flipped, like the weirdest version of a pineapple upside down cake bread you’ve ever heard of.

Food Blog July 2013-1919Once this weirdness was determined, I settled immediately on plums as my fruit choice.  I always forget how much I love plums as a cooked component.  None of the insistent fuzziness of peaches to deal with, but bursting with juice, brightly veined, and hiding just the right hit of tartness in that secret microscopically thin layer between skin and flesh.  I love that part.

Food Blog July 2013-1923Food Blog July 2013-1926Food Blog July 2013-1929I envisioned bubbling slices of that sweet tartness in a slick of butter and brown sugar, mounding on heaps of gussied up Irish soda bread dough and baking the whole thing into a puffed, flippable cake/bread to have for breakfast, afternoon “tea” (N. and I rarely drink hot tea in the 3pm hour, but love the idea of stopping for a bit of a snack), or maybe even wedges wrapped up in wax paper to take on the road as we head into vacation.

Food Blog July 2013-1931Food Blog July 2013-1932What I got was a stunner-in-progress.  I’m going to give you the recipe for exactly what I made, but I know this is not the final iteration of this dish for me.  The plums were perfect: juicy, melting into the caramel and the bottom of the bread, sticky and jammy and reminiscent of a triumphant batch of plum butter my mom made one summer with pounds and pound of plums delivered to our door in a brown paper bag straight from a neighbor’s tree.  The bread itself was good: solid Irish soda bread, a little richer and a little sweeter from the addition of brown sugar, extra butter, and an egg, perfect for the breakfasts and snacks I envisioned, and better the second day than the first.  But as I dug in, I found myself wanting the bread part to be more like cake: more egg, less flour, a hint of vanilla or nutmeg or maybe cardamom.  The plums were so good, so gloriously gooey and tooth-sticking-ly caramelized, that they deserve a proper dessert – something you can watch a scoop of ice cream melt over.

Food Blog July 2013-1938Make this.  It’s solid and scrumptious: the perfectly not-too-sweet energy boosting slice.  But consider yourself warned: this won’t be the last time you see upside down plum something here…

Food Blog July 2013-1945

Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake
Serves 8-10
2-3 plums, thinly sliced
2 TB butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups cake flour (this adds some lightness – if you don’t have cake flour, you can use all AP flour instead with slightly denser results)
¼ cup brown sugar (again)
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
¼ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 egg


  • Preheat the oven to 400F.
  • In a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe skillet), melt the 2 TB butter and toss in the first ¼ cup brown sugar.  Stir around until butter and sugar melt together into a sticky, bubbly mass.
  • Pull the skillet off the heat and add the plums in an even, single layer right on top of the caramel you’ve created.  You can place them in concentric rings if you want, for aesthetics, but so long as you have a complete single layer, you’re in good shape.  Set the skillet aside.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar, the baking soda, and the salt until well blended.
  • In a small bowl or a 2-cup glass measuring cup (I like it easy), combine the melted butter, buttermilk, and egg.  Beat thoroughly with a fork.  Some of the melted butter will solidify again when the colder buttermilk hits it, but that’s okay.  It will all work out.
  • Pour the liquid mixture into your whisked dry ingredients.  You can make a well in the center first if you want, but the important thing is just to get them in there.  Combine with a fork, as you would with the liquid in biscuits, just until everything is incorporated into a rough, lumpy heap of dough.
  • Plop the dough onto the layer of plums and use a spatula or your hands to press it down a bit into an even layer that covers the fruit below.
  • Bake in a 400F oven for 30-40 minutes, until the bread is puffed, golden, and reaches an internal temperature of about 180F.
  • When the bread is done, let it cool for 5-10 minutes.  You can use this time to gather your courage, because the step that comes next is a little bit scary.
  • Place a large plate over the top of your cast iron skillet.  Being very careful, and using pot holders because that sucker is still smokin’ hot, invert the plate-skillet contraption so that the skillet is resting on the plate, bottom side up.  What we’re after is for the bread to give up its hold on the skillet and drop gently onto the plate with the plum layer on top.  This may take another 5-10 minutes.
  • Once the loaf has unstuck itself from the skillet and landed on the plate, remove the skillet and scrape out any remaining plum slices to add to the top of the cake itself.
  • Serve warm, room temperature, or cold, but I think this bread tastes better on day two, when the flavors have had time to meld and deepen a bit.

Finish line

The problem with cramming for final exams – as many of my students were doing only a few weeks ago – is that you end up trying to process too much information, and just as quickly as you learn new things, the old things you thought you knew start sliding away. That’s the glory and the power of writing. Once it’s on the page, it’s solid. No matter how many holiday dinners you eat (I’m onto my third or fourth at this point), those words will still tell you exactly what you did and (sometimes) how you felt about it.

I feel like I’m cramming for my final. Last week, before the holiday, before the family time, before the outpouring of memories and laughter and swallowed tears of all kinds and barking and yelling and joy, I made three Bittmans in a desperate bid to stay on top of the project.

42. Brussels Sprout Sliders: Trim and halve large brussels sprouts, toss with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until tender but not mushy. Using the brussels sprout halves as you would hamburger buns, sandwich them around a piece of crispy bacon or ham, maybe a little caramelized onion, and a dab of whole grain mustard. Keep everything in place with toothpicks.”

I always intended to make this one for a Halloween party. It seemed fitting: for some, brussels sprouts are a frightening, disdained vegetable. But this new perspective on them makes them fun and perhaps even appetizing to those disbelievers who see them only as a bitter waterlogged grenade of disappointment. But I never did. So they became an appetizer for two:

6 brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 strips bacon, cut into eight even pieces (you’ll use six for the brussels. Eat the other two, or share with a tall, handsome somebody who shows up in the kitchen when the smell becomes too enticing to ignore)

dab (maybe 1 tsp total?) whole grain mustard

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a small baking dish (I used a 9” cake pan) with aluminum foil and drizzle the foil with olive oil. Brush or rub the olive oil into an even layer so every millimeter of foil is covered.

Set the sprouts, cut side down, on the oiled foil, spacing them evenly so none are touching. This will ensure even roasting rather than steaming.


Roast for 15 minutes, until the cut edges are browned and just crisp. Using tongs, flip over each sprout so they teeter on their curved sides. Roast for another 15 minutes.

While sprouts are roasting, cook the bacon. Mine was already cooked – saved from another porky occasion – so during the last five minutes of sprout roasting I added the bacon pieces to the pan to heat them up a little.

When the sprouts are browned and lightly tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. As soon as you can bear to touch them, add a tiny spread of mustard across one cut edge, seat the bacon atop it, and place another sprout half on top to complete the sandwich. Drive a toothpick through the whole thing and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.


We gobbled these down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were delightful and I highly recommend them as a party item: crisp bacon, zesty mustard, and the nutty crunchy slight bitterness of roasted brussels sprouts, all collected together in one perfect bite. Perhaps a New Year’s Eve treat to help the hours pass.



Soup and bread seemed like a good meal to follow our sprouts.

82. Cornmeal Flatbread with Onion and Sage: Mix 1 cup cornmeal with 1 teaspoon salt; slowly whisk in 1½ cups water. Cover and let sit for an hour (or up to 12 hours in the refrigerator). Put ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet along with a thinly sliced red onion; stir. Heat the skillet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, then stir and pour in the batter. Bake at 375 degrees until the flatbread is crisp at the edges and releases easily from the pan, about 45 minutes.”

I followed these directions fairly exactly, with the exception that I used only half an onion. The olive oil and onion went into the oven for five minutes at 400F, at which point the onion slices were sizzling and the oil was shimmering beautifully.

Bittman neglects to note where and when to add the sage, so I stirred a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh sage into the batter just before adding it to the skillet.


This concoction baked for 45 minutes, until it was set, the onions were crisp-tender, and the whole thing loosened easily from the skillet and slid almost gracefully onto a serving tray.


We cut large wedges and tasted. It was unlike any other bread I’ve come across – more like baked squares of polenta than anything else, which made sense when I stopped and thought about it. Were I renaming this dish, I think I would call it Polenta Pizza. It was well oiled and spongy in texture, squishing pleasingly between our teeth and driving us back for additional tastes. N. wasn’t sure he liked it at first, but then he went back for a second slice and then a third. When I ribbed him about this, he said he was still deciding what he really thought, and needed more samples to truly make up his mind.


This odd little bread course could easily be dunked in saucers of warmed marinara sauce, or sprinkled with mozzarella or parmesan for a pleasing salty bite. Though the onions and sage were good, you could probably saute almost anything in that skillet before adding the batter: sausage, peppers, mushrooms… anything you’d put on a pizza.

A decadent appetizer and a well-oiled pizza/bread need a sober, sensible kind of soup to balance them out.

19. Saute chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots in olive oil, then add chopped tomatoes (boxed are fine) with their juice, lentils and stock or water to cover. When everything is soft, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar. Garnish with parsley.”

Since we were leaving town the next day, I didn’t want huge quantities. (This still made enough for four, but I froze the leftovers so nothing was lost)

½ red onion (left from the flatbread, so convenient), diced

4-6 small cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup each celery and carrots, sliced

¾ cup lentils

13.5 oz can petite diced tomatoes

2½ cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, or water)

1 TB lemon juice

2 TB fresh, finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

I heated 2 TB olive oil over medium heat, then tossed in the onions to sweat for a minute or two before adding the garlic and the other vegetables. When the onions were translucent and tender, I added the tomatoes, lentils, and broth and turned the heat up to medium high until the whole pot came to a boil.

Once boiling, I gave it a healthy stir and then turned the heat down so the soup would just simmer, letting the lentils soften gently and the vegetables tenderize.

Simmer for at least 35 minutes, then taste the lentils to see if they are tender enough for your taste. We like them soft but not mushy, with minimal resistance but still able to hold their shape.

Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir gently, and dip into serving bowls. Scatter the surface with a grassy sprinkle of parsley.


We liked this, though it wasn’t the best lentil soup I’ve ever had. The flavors were enticing and the lemon juice made it a bright, rather than heavy, soup. The problem with it was that I like my lentil soup more like a stew or a chili. The brightness of the lemon made the shower of shredded pepperjack cheese I was considering adding seem extraneous and out of place, and I tend to get crotchety when denied cheese. But alongside the flatbread and the richness of the brussels sprouts, it was hearty but didn’t weigh us down.

2012 is fading like the last sheen of daylight across the hills in winter. 2013 charges toward us, all mystery and sharp promise. I thought about cheating and saying I was done; these three dishes are the final three, I made it, all boxes are checked, all questions answered, funtoosh, kaput (extra points if you can name my source!), but I just can’t. I’m too close. This final exam is too important. This resolution needs to be one I keep. I have two dishes left. I have two days, one of which will be spent driving from the Sierra Nevada foothills where N.’s parents live back to Los Angeles and my little house. I hope I’m going to make it. The finish line is in sight. Now I just have to stagger across it.