GLUTEN-FREE AND LOW-SUGAR NEVER TASTED SO GOOD: plum-thyme financier
Photos by Stacey DeWolfe
In August, if you live in Villeray or Parc-Ex (or many other neighborhoods around Montreal), you can go onto your balcony and pick the grapes, crab apples and plums that earlier generations of Greek and Portuguese families planted, long before the sea change of gentrification swept through their neighbourhoods. But if you don’t have access to backyard fruit, worry not: The markets are flush with Quebec-grown plums, and unlike other summer fruits, they’re cheap as hell.
They are also a pretty fruit, so plump and purple. I am always drawn to them, but don’t actually enjoy eating them as much as I think I should. Yesterday, however, remembering a time when I made a thyme-scented plum sorbet with honey, I grabbed a basket, thinking I would do the same. But as the weather is starting to cool, and turning on the oven does not seem like the worst idea on earth, I decided instead to make a cake.
When traveling through the southern U.S. this summer, I met a number of people who were obsessed with CrossFit, a health and lifestyle regime that “forges elite fitness” through old-school calisthenics (“just finish your burpees, and then we’ll head out and toss around the ol’ medicine ball”) and an even older approach to eating and nutrition: the Paleo diet, in which people try to emulate a caveman’s diet.
The protagonists in Haruki Murakami novels are always doing calisthenics in their high-rise Tokyo apartments. I like this about them, but when I think about spending an hour doing jumping jacks and gnawing on elk jerky, my enthusiasm wanes. Still, I am compelled by new thinking on diet and exercise, and about the effects that certain foods can have on the body. And so it was that I recently embarked on a diet low in sugar and even lower in wheat. Who knew that one could do this and still eat cake? Cake! Not me. Not until a few months ago.
I had set out to make the Brown Butter Financier from the Mission Street Food cookbook — a cake made with browned butter, toasted ground almonds, icing sugar, egg white and just a teensy bit of flour — when I thought, heck, I’m throwing caution to the wind and leaving that flour out. I won’t exaggerate — it was a minor revelation. But the result was as delicious as it would have been with the wheat.
Over the summer, when the weather permitted, I made the cake countless times, growing lazier with each effort. First, I decided not to brown the butter. Then I determined that the ground almonds were perfectly fine sans toasting.
A note: Because it is so trendy these days, almond flour, which is really just finely ground blanched almonds, is often required in recipes, gluten-free or otherwise. You can make it yourself if you have a good blender. Just grab some bulk almonds and blend them up. You don’t even need to blanch them if you like more texture.
What remains is a cake that takes about five minutes to make, is gluten-free and low in sugar, has a slightly sweet, nutty flavour and has the airy, slightly chewy texture of the much more labour-intensive madeleine. And because the cake is so straightforward in flavour, it goes well with any sort of fruit you desire. On this particular occasion, I used my, by now, very ripe plums.
First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
To make the cake, you will need half a cup of melted butter that has cooled slightly.
Put one cup of ground almonds and half a cup of icing sugar into a large mixing bowl. And the melted butter, and then add one whole egg and the whites of two more.
Stir to mix everything together. The batter will be tacky, so you will need a spatula to scrape it onto the cookie sheet — do not worry if it does not spread to the edges. Put it in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until it is golden brown around the edges.
While the cake is in the oven, remove the stones from about 10 plums and put them in a shallow pan with one cup of Lillet. Add two sprigs of fresh thyme and, depending on the ripeness of the fruit, some honey to taste. Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer.
Poach the plums in the liquid for about 10 minutes, or until they start to soften and break apart. Then remove them, and the thyme, and raise the heat under the liquid.
Cook for about five minutes, stirring often, until the liquid is reduced to a syrup. Taste, and if you feel it is not sweet enough, add a bit more honey. Pour the liquid back over the plums.
To serve, use a cookie cutter or drinking glass to cut shapes out of the cake. Dollop the cake pieces with plain or flavoured yogurt, ice cream or whipped cream, and add the poached fruit.