With all due respect to William Carlos Williams, no one should be eating plums cold from the icebox. Forgive me, but a chilled plum is an inferior plum – like all cold edibles, it will hurt your teeth and numb your taste buds. Should you find yourself in possession of a perfect specimen, soft and full-to-bursting with sweet juice, eat it at room temperature, for crying out loud.
You’re unlikely to be able to discern perfection from the outside, though. The plum is more fickle and harder to read than its fuzzy cousin, the peach. A plum that feels tender and heavy might yield sour mush, not succulent flesh. A bite into a plum is an invitation to be disappointed.
It’s better to dispense with the drama and cook plums instead of eating them raw – that way you can smooth over their imperfections and draw out their juice. Just a few minutes in a saucepan or skillet will bring tart pink liquid seeping out of plum slices, regardless of how moistureless they seemed to begin with. You can keep cooking them until you have a rough compote, but it takes only a little extra effort to make them the centerpiece of an elegant summer dessert.
Upside-down cake might not seem elegant – it’s best known for its maraschino-cherry-studded pineapple variation, an icon of post-war American cooking – but it can be, when you use a not-too-sweet batter made tender with olive oil and yogurt. (You can use a more neutral oil if you insist, but you should try making dessert with extra-virgin olive oil at least once – its slightly bitter edge provides a hint of intrigue in otherwise unadventurous baked goods.)
Upside-down cake is traditionally crowned with a sparse coating of fruit, but I like a higher fruit-to-cake ratio. There should be enough batter to bind the fruit together, but not so much that the plums become an afterthought. Between the tender crumb and lacquered fruit, you’ll find a thin layer of moist, gooey batter – half cake, half fruit, all good.