August 17, 2008 at 9:57 am Leave a comment

The phone call, as most phone calls do, comes in the middle of full and frantic living. Bills, email, and a shopping list swirl around inside my head. It’s raining, the lawn is overdue, and the tomato bed needs weeding; my wife is nowhere to be seen. I barely listen to the familiar voice, “Yes, plums. My neighbor’s tree came down and I have bushels.” Friendship is just a fifteen minute ride away.

On my drive home, a large paper bag of plums squeezed between groceries and errands, I ponder the fate of fruit like none I’ve ever seen. They’re different, these Friendship plums, reddish and round with shades of pink and purple, but much, much smaller than their cousins from Japan – the plumped up bland kind, the kind you can get anywhere. I tried one when I picked them up. It was light and sweet yet tangy, plummy with an edge of tart. Not a good eating plum; they are too soft, the skin is slightly bitter. Nor would they work with my grandmother’s German sheet cake recipe; much too juicy, and their flesh clings to the pit.

Just as I cross the bridge where tide meets river – rapids to my right and mudflats on my left – a taste floats up: Cafloutis! My former neighbor Dick’s fruit flan. Dick, who always seemed to sense when a sweet treat was needed, emails me his recipes now that we have moved to Maine. He only started baking after his Rosemary died, but took to it just as he took to the computer, patient and with a sense of humor and unafraid to try new things. I find the recipe in my inbox, received almost a year ago. Cafloutis! says the subject line and – in all caps as is his style – VICTOR SAYS YOU WILL OWE HIM A SMPLE OF THE FINISHED PRODUCT.

With a few adjustments for quantity and flavor, Dick’s recipe should work. I print it out and turn the oven to 350, then look for my biggest baking pan. Twelve by eighteen inches, it’s barely large enough to hold eight cups of Friendship plums and the most mellow creamy flan. I slice the fruit into rough chunks and extract the pits, juice running down my arms. Usually, my mind likes resting in the focus of such manual tasks. Not this time. My thoughts keep circling back to Victor and his sweet, unassuming ways. The first time we were introduced, I didn’t really see. A mouth ready to smile, dark eyes that dance, doubly alert in a pale face appearing even paler as he’s completely bald. All I really noticed was a deformation, a slight but obvious dent right at the bottom of his skull.

I toss the plums with sugar, about a cup or so, set them aside and, while ten tablespoons of butter melt slowly in a pan, start mixing up the dough. Another cup of sugar, eight eggs, three teaspoons of vanilla, a pinch of salt, plus milk and flour, two and a half cups each; it’s more a liquid than a mass. When Victor moved in next door to keep his Poppa company now that he was alone, the mood transformed from somber into hopeful joy. The men, one old, one young, bonded over baking. Cardamom braids from Finland, Belgian rice custard pie, the layered chocolate glory of Opera cake from Cuba – they traveled the world together, one recipe at a time. We always knew when Vic and Dick were baking: sweet fragrances came wafting across our shared driveway. Then, there would be a phone call, the neighborly clap of a screen door, and Dick would come to our back porch, bearing a sample of their sweet creation on Rosemary’s flowered plate.

“He’s using every pot and pan I have,” he’d say and shrug, amused, and sometimes he would add, “and you should watch him measure and re-measure. Three, four times easily, until he’s sure he’s got it right.” And I would nod, nod in concerned complicity, because by then I knew. Vic was thirteen when he got diagnosed and, though they took the tumor, he had been changed for life.

A sizzle from the stove alarms me: the butter’s more than done. I pour it out into the pan, swirling to coat the sides, and add the sugared plums. Those were the good times, then. Vic held a job, he drove a car. They came to our wedding. They made those little treats. Then, right around the time we moved, the migraines started. The doctors were perplexed. It got so bad that he went in. When they were done, he’d changed for life again.

Careful not to mix the two, I pour the dough onto the plums, hushing pink and purple with creamy yellow flan. Dick’s email says to bake it until it’s lightly browned and a toothpick test right in the middle will come out smooth and clean. I hoist the pan, laden with Cafloutis, onto the middle rack, adjust the timer to forty-five and start cleaning up. Last fall, by the time I got that email, Vic had just relearned to speak. Eating, walking, it took many weeks and he never learnt to drive. This summer he was finally allowed to move back home with Dick; that’s when I saw him last. He was even paler and he looked as though he’d shrunk. His light tenor, halting, wafting, had lost its joyful ring. But his hug was just as warm and real as it had always been. “Good to see you,” we both said and then he went inside. And I got back into my truck and drove home to Maine.

Last month, on another visit, Vic was gone again. Seven weeks was all he had; this time it was worse. “It seems to me that progress is much slower,” Dick worried. “This does not bode well for the future.” All I could do was nod. Nodding, we both stood in our driveway, sharing wordless sorrow. Suddenly, he smiled. “Everybody loves him because he is so kind. Would you believe that even now, people who met him when he worked after school, bagging groceries, still remember Victor? That was twenty years ago!” Resting his arms on top of his small belly, he shifts his weight, rocking from heel to toe. “And do you know that when he came home from rehab we had to bake for all the friends he’d made? Vic had memorized all their names – three floors full of patients and their nurses – and what each one liked best.”

The timer shrills me back into my kitchen. Cafloutis! How could I forget? With a flash of apprehension I open the oven door. Immediately, I am enveloped by a fragrance from another world. And what a sight! Along the edges of the pan the dough has risen wildly and it is golden brown. The center is an undulating sea of creamy yellow flan, each swell kissed by the oven’s sun. It’s flecked with peaks of purple and butter puddles here and there. It is a thing of beauty, enough to feed the world. Who needs a toothpick test – it’s perfect! I hoist it out and let it rest, watching it deflate. As I begin to crown it with powdered sugar dust, the doorbell rings. It’s Pam, Pam of the plums, on her way back to Friendship where she makes her home. Just then, my wife comes through the backdoor, following her nose. I place three pieces of Cafloutis on my good, flowered plates and hand them out with forks.

It’s quiet in the room until my wife lets out a sigh. “This is fantastic.”

“The best I ever had.” Pam sounds almost shocked.

So that I can really taste it, I have to close my eyes. Yes, it’s creamy. Yes, it’s mellow. The dough that rose so wildly on the edges is buttery and mild. The butter on the bottom and the sugar from the plums turned into caramel delight. The flan is just as I remembered, delicate and sweet and yet… there is that tinge of bitter, enough to wake you up. Those Friendship plums, their skins, gave my Cafloutis that contrast which can transubstantiate delight into divine.

“Pam, you never told me what brought down that tree. It’s been raining quite a bit, but I don’t remember storm.”

“There was no storm. This summer the tree bore more than any other year. It split in half and lost its leader, heavy with its own fruit.”

Entry filed under: Dessert, Fruit Flan. Tags: , , , .

This Pancake is a Meal Cecily’s Apples

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Stories Inspired by Food

... and stories about food inspired by life. This collection is a work in progress, a reflection of what happens when a writer becomes an innkeeper and when time and food come together to grow into a creative experience. Enjoy!


© 2008. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dominika Spetsmann and Cecily's Apples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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