A Tale of Two Tortes: Marian Burros' Famous Cake, Two Ways

August 10, 2015

What happens when two food editors accidentally make the same recipe on the same day?

Yesterday, I spotted some prune plums at the market and snatched them up with plans to make the most famous plum cake on the internet (you've seen it in the New York Times, on Smitten Kitchen and The Kitchn, and on this site, too; you've heard about it on The Splendid Table).  

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I texted Ali: "Have u ever had Marian Burros' plum torte?"
She responded, almost immediately: "me Rn," with the following picture:

My response: "????
And then: "What is that."

I knew what it was—and that it must be delicious (those puckering plum butts!)—but I was surprised: I had never seen Marian Burros' plum torte look quite like that before. And when I baked my own version later that day, it looked nothing like Ali's.

Ali's geometric plum torte on the left; my spotted one on the right.

So what was different?

  • I used prune plums; Ali used red sugar plums.
  • I used a 9-inch round pan; Ali used an 8-inch square one. (The recipe calls for a 9-inch springform.)
  • I sprinkled the cake with 2 teaspoons of turbinado sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon; Ali sprinkled with white sugar, cardamom, and, per the original recipe, lemon juice (and she put a thin layer of shredded unsweetened coconut underneath the plums). 
  • I used vanilla sugar (the only type I had); Ali used white sugar. 
  • I baked my cake for 40 minutes; Ali baked hers for 1 hour, but her cake still turned out more blonde. (The original instructions are: "Bake one hour, approximately." The instructions on our site are: "Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.)

Would you ever think these two slices were made using the same recipe?

Ali and I compared our tortes to the pictures on Food52 and realized that neither came close to our reference point:

But then we looked in Genius Recipes, where the torte is also featured, and saw that that one looked different, too (so many fewer plums!):

We also noticed that our hero Molly Wizenberg of Orangette had baked a suspiciously similar-yet-different looking cake over the weekend:


Three guesses.

A photo posted by Molly Wizenberg (@mollyorangette) on

You guessed it—Molly was baking the plum torte, too. We deemed this weekend "The Weekend of Marian Burros' Plum Torte," gave up on trying to figure out what made them all look so different, and just enjoyed. 

Have you made Marian Burros' torte, too? What did yours look like? Tell us your experiences in the comments below, and share your plum torte photos by tagging them with #f52grams on Instagram. 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Becca (tencansbeans)
    Becca (tencansbeans)
  • Jean B.
    Jean B.
  • ezachos
  • Jo B
    Jo B
  • kaitlin.c
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Becca (. September 27, 2015
I made a couple of them this summer- mine look a little like the square one, but still pretty unique. I think the x factor might be the variety of plums..
Jean B. August 13, 2015
I made the torte earlier this summer, and it came out a golden brown rather than blonde. I'm intrigued by adding almond flour or shredded coconut under the plums. Will have to try on future versions!
ezachos August 12, 2015
NOW I know where my mom got this recipe! Mine looks pretty much like the reference point, though often the plums end up completely submerged in the cake. Takes at least an hour for mine to bake through.
Jo B. August 12, 2015
Here are four I've made, two not with plums! I make this all the time, sometimes with plums, sometimes with peaches, apricots. Sometimes I stuff the fruit on top, sometimes not.
variety of fruits:
plums (before baking):
plums (before baking):
Sarah J. August 12, 2015
Wow so beautiful! Thank you for sharing.
kaitlin.c August 12, 2015
I made one this weekend, too! I used the tiny red plums I got in my CSA share - not sure what type but they aren't prune plums. I followed the recipe as written but baked in a 9" stoneware pie plate. It looked a lot like yours - wish I'd thought to snap a photo!
selena August 12, 2015
I learned the lesson awhile ago. We gave a recipe to a group (all who cook) to have enough of the dish for a pot luck supper. At the event, no two were alike.
Eva V. August 12, 2015
The first plums are coming into the stores now, I'm poised and ready to go! I sprinkle a little almond flour under the plums to soak up the released juices. The plums are pushed pushed i to the batter on their sides in a concetric circle pattern. I Like the geometric pattern too though, might give that a try!

Have to aks, what did the text "Me, RN" mean?????
toweringinferno August 12, 2015
I had to stop and think too - the "RN" means "right now". Man do I feel old.
Sugartoast August 11, 2015
I made one today too - and am only now seeing this article. It's the first time I tried the recipe, and it turned out perfect. Those jammy spiced plums against that perfect cake top crackle crunch...yum!
Sarah J. August 11, 2015
There's nothing quite like it!
amysarah August 10, 2015
You've solved a mystery! My mother frequently made this cake in the summer (as do I) and I've long wondered where it came from. Bingo! Makes sense it would be from the NYT, also there was an early Marion Burros cookbook she loved, called "Freeze with Ease" - maybe it appeared there. Btw, I sometimes use brown sugar, which works nicely with the plums and gives the cake part a little chewy-ness. If you serve it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you're really in business.
Dominika U. August 10, 2015
I love this post! To respond to your question - I've made this many times, and it pretty much looks like the reference point photo....thought I use far more plums (I fill it until they don't fit anymore). It's always delicious, and perfect, and gone so quickly.

Moreover, I used to work as a baker in a restaurant, and we always talked about this phenomenon. The chef taught me how to make many of his recipes (I helped out a lot with food prep), but when I made those recipes at home, they ALWAYS turned out differently than when HE made it (his was always better). We always made fun of people who had "secret recipes" or "secret ingredients" because it had become so obvious to us that it is so hard to replicate something....that 10 people could be given a recipe or ingredients to make something, and all of them would turn out slightly (or sometimes drastically) different!! Everyone "salts to taste" differently, or mixes differently, etc.
HalfPint August 10, 2015
I've made this plum torte many times and it always looks like your reference point. And I've used all sorts of different plums and even other fruit (like apples, raspberries, pears, etc). This recipe is very flexible & forgiving and is delicious even with those flavorless out of season plums from the supermarket. Wish I had photos, but the cake never lasts long enough for photos ;)
Sarah J. August 10, 2015
I know what you mean—my cake went from full to finished in less than 2 hours!
drbabs August 10, 2015
You have no idea how happy this makes me.