There are few good reasons to fire up one’s oven during the summer months, but one of the surest, for me, is cake with fruit in it—not fruitcake (the brick-like, spiced, Christmas kind), but just plain cake studded with hunks of juicy, fresh, seasonal fruit. Marian Burros’s legendary plum torte is perhaps the most famous variation, and arguably the single most famous recipe to ever run in the pages of the Times. A straightforward batter studded with fresh plums, which gently sink into the cake as it rises in the oven, it is a flawless creation, worthy of every iota of its celebrity—it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s cheap, and it always gets raves.
Despite the fanciness of the name “torte,” Burros’s recipe is essentially a variant on a pound cake, which might be the key to its popularity. In the finicky, ultra-precise world of cake-making, where a baker can be entirely undone by a misstep as minor as introducing her eggs to a batter at the wrong temperature, pound cake is virtually foolproof. The entire recipe is right there in the name, as simple as can be: a pound of flour, a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of eggs. It’s dense, rich, and wonderfully forgiving.
Recently, I was singing the praises of Burros’s recipe to a friend, explaining how you could swap in basically any fruit at all (cherries! apricots! pears!), when my inner know-it-all second grader chimed in to note that, actually, tomatoes are a fruit. If we want to get technical, so are cucumbers, avocados, and bell peppers, but tomatoes are the most fruitlike of these fruits: sweet, acidic, and fleshy in a way that’s comparable to the other kinds of produce that shine in Burros’s torte. Was it possible, I wondered, to make a savory, tomatoey version of a summer pound cake?
Savory cakes are not unheard of, but the record is notably slim. There’s the very French, very posh-home-cook cake salé, for instance, a dry cake made with cubed ham, cheese, and olives and baked in a loaf pan. There are numerous eggy cakes (such as Yotam Ottolenghi's exquisite spiced cauliflower cake) that veer ontologically toward quiche. After a few less-than-magnificent attempts substituting Burros’s plums for tomatoes, and eliminating the sugar, I wondered if maybe it’s no accident that all the best-known cakes tend to be sweet. Sugar not only lends flavor (both sweetness and, as a cake bakes, a caramelized depth) but is a great influencer of texture: it bonds with water molecules, making a cake moister, with a lighter, more tender crumb. My first experiments with the tomato cake came out flat and dense, tasting oily and undercooked, even though the top was nearly scorched—an insipid waste of good ingredients.
I was ready to give up after a second, barely better attempt, but a third try (replacing half the sugar, by weight, with cheese) had promise, and looked genuinely lovely. I posted a snap of it to Instagram, and within an hour received a comment from René Redzepi, the chef-proprietor of Noma, in Copenhagen, and one of the most wondrously creative cooks on the planet: “good ?,” he wrote. Thus fortified, I continued tweaking—swapping out half the butter for olive oil, for a heavier texture, and seeding the tomatoes, to reduce their water content. Eventually, after a few more adjustments, and the sacrifice of many valiant pounds of tomatoes, I ended up with something magnificent: dense, buttery, and rich. It’s undeniably a pound cake, with a fine crumb and a sunny yellow hue, but instead of sweetness it hums on a bass line of Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and black pepper, with bright bursts of tangy tomato. As in a traditional pound cake, the ratio of ingredients is clean: one part each of cheese, butter, and olive oil, with two parts each of flour and eggs. (Like most baked recipes, it works best when ingredients are measured by weight, rather than volume, with the help of a digital kitchen scale.)
Summer tomatoes are just starting to appear at the markets (and in friends’ gardens). Make this with the juiciest ones you can find, and serve it alongside a green salad dressed with a sharp vinaigrette.
Savory Tomato Pound Cake
unsalted butter, for greasing pan
200 grams (1½ cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
12 to 16 ounces of fresh tomatoes (large vine-ripened or heirloom, medium plum or campari, or small cherry or grape, or a mix of all)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more for sprinkling
100 grams (1 cup) finely grated Parmesan cheese
100 grams (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter
100 grams (½ cup) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sprinkling
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a 10-inch metal springform pan, cake pan, or pie pan.
2. If using large- or medium-sized tomatoes, remove the cores, then slice the tomatoes in half through their equators. Squeeze or scoop out their seeds, then coarsely chop the flesh. If using small cherry or grape tomatoes, halve or quarter them, and squeeze out their seeds by pinching them between your fingers. When all of your tomatoes are prepped, place them in a colander set over a bowl, and toss with a teaspoon of salt. Let stand and drain while you make the batter.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the 200 grams (1 1/2 cups) of flour, the remaining teaspoon of salt, the baking powder, and pepper until evenly combined.
4. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the Parmesan, butter, and oil on medium speed until pale white and very fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, and beat on medium speed until smooth. Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined. The mixture should be airy and light, with a mousselike texture.
5. Spoon about half the batter into the prepared pan. Give the tomatoes a shake in the colander, to fling off any moisture still clinging to them, then sprinkle half of the drained, salted tomatoes over the batter in the pan. Spoon the remaining batter into the pan, spreading it evenly, then sprinkle the rest of the tomatoes on top, lightly pressing them down into the batter. Brush the exposed tomatoes with more olive oil and, if desired, sprinkle on a little more salt and pepper.
6. Bake until the top is pale gold and a small knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Let the cake cool for 20 minutes before removing from the pan. Let the cake cool to room temperature before serving. Store any uneaten cake at room temperature, in an airtight container or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap.