Who says pineapple is the only fruit that gets to have an upside-down cake? Why not bestow the same honor on the humble plum? Take a lesson from Honorine Boulanger O’Malley, a resourceful mother and businesswoman who used her wits and creativity to feed a crowd with plum upside-down cake. Little did she know that her delicious recipe would tie her family together for generations to come.
In the 1930s, O’Malley opened Nora O’Malley’s Boarding House on Portland’s Pettygrove Street, said O’Malley’s granddaughter Jean Miller of Vancouver. O’Malley served her famous plum cake, a turn-of-the-century recipe that had always delighted O’Malley’s children, to a steady stream of lodgers who were drawn to the boarding house by O’Malley’s renowned cooking. The recipe was passed down the family line and now the O’Malley descendants have been eating upside-down plum cake for at least a hundred years, each forkful rich with remembrance.
“Food is like a transporter. It’s a way-back machine. It’s the flavor of your memory and there’s nothing more intense,” said Miller. “When you eat something like that, it creates an entire scene. It makes a movie in your head.”
Miller said the plum cake was important to the O’Malley siblings because it was a reminder of their early, close-knit childhood in Wisconsin. After their father died, the entrepreneurial O’Malley tried several business ventures to keep the family together (“pretty gutsy for 1921,” quipped Miller) but nothing was successful. The five O’Malley children were reluctantly separated and sent to live with far-flung relatives. After a series of moves, O’Malley came to Portland. Later, the grown brothers and sisters followed their mother to the Pacific Northwest and remained devoted to O’Malley until her death in the late ’40s.
Miller, who was born in 1950, never got a chance to meet O’Malley, but she feels a kinship with her plucky grandmother through recipes like the plum upside-down cake. O’Malley passed her culinary talents to Miller’s mother, Mary O’Malley Laughlin, who labored tirelessly to create a stable, nurturing home, perhaps in part because of her own youthful misfortune, Miller said.
“My mother was just going all the time — kids off to school, clean up the house and out the door, but home by the time we got home from school,” Miller said. “She tried to be the perfect mom, not in a Betty Crocker way but in doing what was right for her children.”
Miller was 15 when Laughlin suffered a stroke that left her unable to continue her normal activities for a time. Miller, the youngest of four siblings and a fixture by her mother’s side, was able to take over housekeeping duties without a hitch. That included making plum upside-down cake. Miller said the familiar recipe seemed to make a tough situation better.
It might be tempting to use fresh plums for this recipe, especially in late summer when plums are beautifully ripe and sweet, but Miller would not advise it. The excess moisture in fresh fruit could cause the sponge cake to collapse into goo. If you can’t find canned plums, Miller suggested using another canned fruit, like peaches, apricots, pears or cherries. In Miller’s opinion, however, the plums make the cake.
“The plums are sort of bittersweet. They’re not like peaches. Plums have a tang,” Miller said. “When you match the tanginess of the plum and that deep plum flavor with the sponge cake, it’s a perfect pairing.”
Miller said the “light and buoyant” sponge cake makes such a tasty dessert that it doesn’t need adornment with whipped cream or ice cream. Miller allows that it’s not a true upside-down cake in that the finished cake isn’t inverted onto a serving dish so that the fruit is on top. The cake is scooped out rather than sliced into pieces. In that sense, it has more in common with a cobbler or the rather ingloriously named dump cake, in which cake batter is poured onto fruit before baking. The plum dessert earned the “upside-down” moniker simply because that’s what all the Laughlin kids called it, Miller said.
The cake was one of the best things her mother made, Miller said, and the kids considered it a tremendous treat. Looking back, Miller said she can see why the plum cake was special to her mother. It represented precious family connections and family history, a story in which love bridges distances and triumphs over sorrow.
“That’s why our family is so close,” Miller said of the O’Malleys’ separation and eventual reunion. “It was an adverse thing that turned into a beautiful thing.”
Plum Upside-down Cake
2 beaten eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
One 15-ounce can of whole plums, drained, pitted and cut in half
½ cup sugar, sprinkled on top of plums
¼ cup butter or margarine, cut into small cubes and distributed evenly over plums
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Arrange plums evenly over bottom of 8-by-8 pan. Thoroughly mix eggs, 1 cup sugar, flour, baking powder, water, salt and vanilla. Pour batter over plum layer. Bake for 35-40 minutes and check for doneness. The cake should spring back when touched. Allow plum cake to cool completely. Serves four to seven, depending on how many people are clamoring for it.