Plums are a fairly reliable crop for us in south-central Missouri. We have four pretty good trees and four pretty bad trees, which divide neatly in half: The Japanese plums (and the plucot) are the good ones and the European plums are the bad ones. I mention this in case you happen to be considering planting fruit trees. For us, the Japanese plums bear earlier in the tree’s life, bear far more reliably, are less prone to disease, and hold onto their fruit better under less than ideal conditions. Most years, we get decent fruit from one or more of those trees (they tend toward biennial bearing). Most years, we do not get any fruit from the European plums.
The Japanese plums we have are Fortune, Shiro, Ozark Premier, and the plucot (which is a plum-apricot hybrid, but seems to have gotten no obvious traits from the apricot parent). These trees are unaffected by late frosts that destroy the apricot flowers or young fruits, and also far more resistant to late frosts than the peaches. The Shiro started bearing youngest and bears most reliably and heavily. It is a sweet plum with a tart yellow skin, but it goes mushy fast. The Fortune is a purple plum with purple flesh. It’s sweet, but it goes from underripe to overripe in a heartbeat. The Ozark Premier was slow to start bearing. It bears bigger purple plums with yellow flesh and has a good flavor, and it doesn’t go overripe as fast as the others. The plucot bears very heavily, small tart purple plum-type fruit with yellow flesh infused with red.
For us, it is impossible – laughable – to think of growing plums (or peaches) without spraying. My guess is it’s impossible for most people to grow plums (or especially peaches) without spraying, so take that into consideration if you’re thinking of growing fruit trees. Borers and other insects are a danger, but the real problem is, in a wet spring, brown rot will destroy your entire crop. I am not kidding. Even if you spray, you may have problems with brown rot unless you are a) lucky, b) very aggressive about spraying, c) rotate your sprays to prevent the fungus from adapting to your spray, d) are extremely diligent about picking and disposing of affected fruit in a bad year where you just can’t keep ahead of the fungus. If you don’t want to spray, my experience suggests that the only stone fruit worth trying are cherries.
Also, while squirrels or raccoons will strip a tree overnight just before you were ready to pick the fruit — an electric wire on the fence is the only preventative that we’ve found effective — we do just let the birds take a lot of plums. By now the trees are far too tall for us to pick the top fruit, and besides, in a heavy-bearing year, the trees carry so much fruit we don’t care how much the birds take. But unlike on the plums, birds alone can completely destroy the peach crop. After consulting with a nursery (and receiving a very polite and helpful letter), we now use a spray that makes birds uncomfortable about landing in the peach trees. That pretty much does the job.
So, back to plums:
As it happens, plums are a fruit I don’t much care for out-of-hand. I like them much better cooked, but not in pies, which for me offer far too much fruit and far too little pastry. I can only eat tart fruit pies if they’re drowned under ice cream or whipped cream. Here are some much better ways to use up a lot of plums:
1. The basic first step: cook your plums. Slice the plums into a pot. Add a cup or two of sugar, depending on how many plums you’ve got. You’ll taste the plums later, so don’t worry about getting the sugar right on the first try. If you want to use tapioca as a thickener, add a quarter cup or so. Cook on medium heat for a few minutes. The plums will give up a lot of liquid and start boiling vigorously; stir frequently and reduce the heat as necessary to maintain a gentler simmer. You may need to add more thickener if the plums were extra juicy.
If you’re using cornstarch to thicken your plums, when the plums have more or less dissolved – some thick pieces and skins and so on will be evident – make a slurry of cornstarch and water or cornstarch and plum liquid and stir this into your pot. Cook and stir until thickened. If you were using tapioca, the plums should thicken into a thick syrup or thinnish jam. Of course the syrup will thicken more when chilled. Once you have the thickness you think you might like, taste for sugar. When you like what you have, cool and pour into jars and either freeze or refrigerate. Or I guess you could sterilize canning jars and actually can the plum filling.
Now, stuff to do with the plum filling once you have it. Other than spooning it over ice cream, which I’m sure would work, you can try these recipes:
2. Plum-topped cheesecake
This is a really good traditional cheesecake. It’s my mother’s favorite, and of course I’m not likely to turn down a piece either. I’ve made it in three different ovens and it is a pretty reliable recipe, but of course if it does crack, you’re going to put a topping on it, so it doesn’t much matter.
1 C. vanilla wafer crumbs
3 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp butter, melted
4 pkg (8 oz each) cream cheese, softened
1 C sugar
3 Tbsp flour
1 C sour cream
1 Tbsp vanilla
Combine the crumbs, sugar, and butter. Press onto bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.
Beat together cream cheese, sugar, and flour. Beat in eggs one at a time. Blend in sour cream and vanilla. Pour over crust. Bake at 450 degrees for ten minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees and continue baking one hour. The center should seem barely set or not quite set; it’ll firm up as it cools. Remove cake from oven and run a thin knife around the rim of the pan. Cool completely in pan. Chill. Top with plum filling right before serving.
Obviously this is fine with all kinds of toppings, but you want something a little tart and the plum topping fits the bill perfectly.
3. Frozen cream cake with plums
This is what I made for the 4th of July. Of course the original recipe called for blueberries, but I had all the plum topping already made and it worked fine with that.
8 oz cream cheese, softened
¾ C powdered sugar
2½ C heavy cream
1 C lemon curd – I was going to buy some, but couldn’t find any, so I made some. I’m sure it was better anyway. Of course you have to make it in advance and chill it.
16 graham crackers, or if you’re not a graham cracker fan – I’m not – any kind of decent flat plain cookie.
2 C plum topping (or other somewhat tart fruit topping)
Beat cream cheese with powdered sugar until fluffy, about four minutes. Beat in cream, gradually increasing the speed of your mixer as the cream is incorporated. Beat until medium peaks form (mine got pretty stiff, which was fine). Fold in the lemon curd. Set aside about a quarter of the cream mixture and chill separately.
Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang. Layer graham crackers over bottom of pan. Layer with a third of the remaining cream filling. Spread with about 2/3 C of the plum filling. Repeat layers twice, ending up with a layer of graham crackers. Press plastic wrap over the top and freeze at least six hours or up to a couple of days (I don’t see why it wouldn’t hold longer if you wanted) (I hope you checked ahead of time to make sure you had room in your freezer for the loaf pan).
Shortly before you want to serve the cake, take it out of the freezer and unmold it onto a platter. Ice it with the reserved lemon cream. Freeze for at least fifteen minutes or a couple of hours (you DID check you had room for the platter in the freezer, right?). Slice to serve. This was very good and quite pretty.
I make a little individual cobbler for myself all the time. All you need is an appropriate small baking dish – mine are about five inches across. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Make a scant quarter recipe of any biscuit or scone dough, but add a bit more sugar than the recipe calls for (I add about a Tbsp of sugar to about ½ C of flour and a little baking powder and baking soda, then milk or else yogurt and a bit of water – I don’t measure stuff, actually, I just stir it up so it looks about right). Put about a quarter cup of the plum filling in the baking dish and heat in the microwave until boiling. Drop biscuit or scone dough over and bake until done. There’s no reason you couldn’t use the same basic idea to make a full-sized cobbler, obviously.