The One Cake Recipe That Never Lets Me Down

updated Jun 2, 2023
Kitchn Love Letters
The Infinitely Tweakable Torte Recipe

This easy pantry cake comes together quickly and can be topped with whatever fruit you have on hand.

Serves6 to 8

Prep20 minutes

Cook40 minutes to 45 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Credit: Nina Elder

When people wax poetic about recipes, it’s often a charming tale about dishes their mom or grandma made for them. And while I appreciate those stories, I really can’t relate. Both of my grandmothers were great cooks, but I grew up far away from them, so cooking at their side was a rare occurrence. And while my mom is a very loving person, cooking isn’t her love language. When I was growing up, family dinners were quick and practical: ground beef casserole, Chef Boyardee ravioli (my favorite!), soup and sandwich. And don’t worry, there was always a green veggie on the side, too.

So how in the world did I end up as a food writer and editor? In a word, dessert. Although sweets weren’t a big part of my daily diet, I loved cruising the baking aisle at the grocery store while my mom shopped. I liked sweets, sure, but even more than that I loved the idea of making an elaborate treat for serving at a dinner party. When I was a kid, I thought that Jell-O no-bake cheesecake with canned strawberry pie filling was the height of sophistication. That’s not the kind of thing that my family of three had very often, but when we did I made it — and boy was I proud of myself.

Practicing My Decorating Skills

These sweet dreams extended to 4-H. My family lived in town (it was 700 people, but still), so I didn’t have any livestock to raise and had to get creative with my areas of focus. What did I choose? Leather working (key chains for everyone!), wardrobe planning, and cake decorating. My Dad wore the personalized belt I made for him until it broke, but I was most proud of the boxes that I frosted and topped very carefully with icing flowers. (We frosted boxes instead of actual cakes so we could practice our decorating skills without wasting food.) I studied the Wilton cake decorating handbook carefully and dreamt of a day when I could create 3-D cakes with star-tip details.

Credit: Nina Elder

That day eventually came (see exhibits A and B), but along the way I learned to also appreciate simpler treats. Banana bread, muffins, and a galette instead of a lattice-topped pie — or the ultimate example, the famous Marian Burros Plum Torte. Burros, a cookbook author and New York Times food reporter, first published the recipe in the NYT in 1983 and it went on to become one of the paper’s most requested recipes.

It’s the kind of recipe that’s famous in certain circles, one of which is the food media sphere. It took me a few years to try it after bookmarking it, but once I made it I too fell under its spell. The original recipe calls for Italian plum prunes, which are very seasonal and can be hard to find. I found them once when I lived in Brooklyn, which is when my torte-making began.

Trying Marian Burros’ Plum Torte Recipe

The recipe truly couldn’t be simpler. You just cream butter with sugar, then you add a couple eggs, and then the flour and leavening mixture. Spread the slightly stiff batter in a pan; top with the plums, a little sugar, and some lemon juice; and bake. That’s it.

It sounds dead simple, and it is, but what emerges from the oven is pretty extraordinary. Tender cake with pockets of jammy fruit and a treat that’s sweet enough for dessert but also fruity enough that you can totally feel OK eating it for breakfast. As a rule-follower by temperament, I made it Marian’s way a few times, but then I stumbled upon a Times piece that mentioned that cooks had successfully played around with the recipe.

I was intrigued. One of the reasons I like sweets is that following instructions is calming for me. In other words, I’m not going to be cast as a Chopped contestant anytime soon. But I figured if other people tried it, why not give it a shot. And that’s when my world opened up.

Tweaking The Original Torte Recipe

I tried regular plums (such a risk-taker!). Delicious. I swapped in raspberries, then blackberries, then strawberries. Incredibly tasty! I skipped the lemon juice. No problem. I wanted to make it at my parents’ house and they didn’t have the 10-inch springform pan I always used, so I tried it in a 9-inch pie pan. It worked!

Credit: Nina Elder

Feeling confident in my torte-tweaking abilities, I decided to really go for it and swapped out all of the white sugar for brown sugar, added some vanilla extract, and topped it with sliced peaches and a healthy amount of turbinado sugar. Holy crap! Replacing brown sugar for white sugar changed the dessert completely. The cake took on a caramely flavor and had a texture that fell somewhere between a cake and a blondie. It was rich but not overwhelming and the softened, slightly tangy peach slices were the perfect foil for the cake.

I was hooked. I tried my new version with blackberries and peaches, raspberries plus chocolate chips, and even thinly sliced apples. Good, good, and good. I swapped out half of the white flour for whole-wheat flour. No problem. I went back to white sugar for a hot second and added a bunch of frozen blueberries and then topped the cooled cake with a simple powdered sugar glaze. Yum! It tasted like a giant blueberry muffin. Drunk with power, I made the brown sugar version, divided the batter among a 12-cup muffin tin, and topped the muffins with chopped peaches. Amazing!

I was certain one of these variations would break the recipe, but Marian has done what rarely happens: She’s written a recipe that invites you in, shows you how it’s done, and then encourages you to take a risk and see what you can do. And when it works, you feel like a rock star. I went looking for dessert and found confidence, freedom, and something I could call my own. And what could be sweeter than that?

The Infinitely Tweakable Torte Recipe

This easy pantry cake comes together quickly and can be topped with whatever fruit you have on hand.

Prep time 20 minutes

Cook time 40 minutes to 45 minutes

Serves 6 to 8

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1 stick) unsalted butter

  • Cooking spray or butter, for coating the pan

  • 2

    medium peaches, or 12 ounces of any fresh or frozen fruit (do not thaw)

  • 1 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 cup packed

    light or dark brown sugar

  • 2

    large eggs, divided

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 1 tablespoon

    turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. Place 1 stick unsalted butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl if using an electric hand mixer). Let sit at room temperature until softened.

  2. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF. Coat a 9-inch round cake with cooking spray or butter and line the bottom with a parchment paper round. Lightly coat the parchment with cooking spray or butter.

  3. If using fresh peaches, halve, pit, and cut 2 medium into 1/2-inch slices. If using other fresh fruit, slice or cut 12 ounces into bite-sized pieces as needed.

  4. Place 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.

  5. Add 1 cup packed brown sugar to the bowl of butter. Beat with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until very light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula.

  6. Add 1 large egg and beat on medium speed until combined, about 10 seconds. Add the remaining 1 large egg and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat until combined, about 10 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.

  7. Turn the mixer on to low speed. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat until just combined (do not overmix), about 30 seconds.

  8. Transfer the batter to the cake pan, spread it into an even layer, and smooth the top. Arrange the peaches or fruit evenly on the batter. (I arrange peach slices in concentric circles, but there’s no wrong way to do this.) Sprinkle evenly with 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar.

  9. Bake until the cake is browned around the edges and a tester inserted into the center comes out mostly clean (a few moist crumbs around the fruit is fine), 40 to 45 minutes. Check after 30 minutes and if the cake is browning too quickly, tent it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.

  10. Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Run a thin knife or small offset spatula around the edge of the cake to loosen it. Carefully invert it onto a large plate or platter, then flip it right side up onto the rack. Let cool before serving.

Recipe Notes

Substitutions: Use any fruit you have: berries, stone fruit, figs, apples. You can also use almond extract instead of vanilla, add a bit of spice to the flour mixture (a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon is good with apples; 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom is tasty with peaches).

Make ahead: The cake can be made up to 1 day ahead, cooled, covered, and stored at room temperature.

Cake pans: I’ve baked it in 8, 9, and 10-inch round cake pans, 8-inch square baking pans, and 9 and 10-inch springform pans. And I also used 8 and 9-inch pie plates! It works in all of those options. You can also double the recipe and bake it in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Baking time will vary, check earlier for pans wider than 9 inches.

Mini Tortes (aka muffin-size): You can also make this recipe in a standard muffin tin. Dice the peaches instead of slicing them and divide the batter among the wells of a 12-well muffin pan (about 2 tablespoons of batter per well). Bake for about 25 minutes.

Storage: The cake can be covered tightly with aluminum foil or stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.