Our All-Time Most Requested Recipe Turns 40. Here’s Its Story.

This article was updated on Sept. 7, 2023, in honor of the torte’s 40th anniversary.

When Marian Burros, a longtime food reporter for The New York Times, first wrote about the plum torte in September 1983, no one expected it to become the most requested recipe, and among the most beloved, in the history of the newspaper.

Recipe: Original Plum Torte

It certainly appeared without fanfare, nestled in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, accompanying a brief report about the arrival of the Italian plum season. With just eight ingredients and a few short steps, it didn’t seem to have the makings of a hit.

Yet after the fact, the newspaper received so many requests for the recipe that the editors decided to reprint it the following year, and the next, and each subsequent year until they decided it was time to put an end to the madness. In 1989, they ran an updated version (three-quarters of a cup of sugar, rather than a full cup) with a broken-line border, encouraging readers to cut it out, laminate it and save it. Ms. Burros wrote: “This could really be the last time we print the recipe. Really!”

Numerous letters arrived in protest.

“The appearance of the recipe, like the torte itself, is bittersweet,” a reader wrote. “Summer is leaving, fall is coming. That’s what your annual recipe is all about. Don’t be grumpy about it.”

“Perhaps, it has become the adult version of September’s shiny new notebook for school,” another wrote.

Two readers sent in poems.


Original Plum Torte

“You know what would go great with this coffee? A plum torte. That’s the intro.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Hello, everybody. My name is Vaughn. I am a video journalist for NYT Cooking. And today I’m going to be making one of — I think I say this every time, but this time I really mean it. This is probably the most sacred NYT Cooking recipe. Today I’m going to be making the original plum torte. And I’m going to pick and choose some of my favorite suggestions and amendments from readers. I’m going to make it maybe once, twice more, and have a big plum party after that. So let’s get baking. I’m going to start by preparing my plums just so I have them off to the side. So you use plum halves or really whatever fruit is in season. So this recipe calls for 12 pitted and halved plums. There’s no way that 24 halves of plums are going to fit into this thing. So use your best judgment. If you buy too many plums, that’s not a bad problem to have. So I’m going to just have these, put them off to the side before I get going with my cake batter. Butter goes in. The recipe will say 3/4 to 1 cup sugar. A lot of that depends on how ripe or naturally sweet your fruit is. It won’t change the chemistry of the bake too terribly much if you do 3/4 cup to 1 cup thicker into high gear. Now, in a lot of cake recipes, I would venture to say most types of cake recipes, this is where you would then add your eggs and your vanilla. Here the recipe calls for you to just kind of dump everything in at once. Flour, baking powder, a nice little pinch of salt. I’m going to start on low, just kind of let it go for a minute. You don’t want to over-mix. But I am going to let it kind of get well incorporated. So just use a little offset spatula to kind of smooth it all out. You don’t want to press the plums into the batter itself because there is a lot of leavener in there. It is going to rise. It’s going to puff up. So just kind of nestle the plums. Squeeze some lemon on top and then granulated sugar and some cinnamon, just a whisper. I’m going to put it in the oven for about an hour. The plum torte is a recipe that was published in 1983 and ran every single summer after that from 1983 to 1989. Then in 1990, the editors of ‘The Times’ said, you know what? Enough is enough. We’re going to run this one last time. People were outraged. A lot of people had some very colorful things to say. I have some real fun ones right here. A reader in Tarrytown, New York, said, ‘the? Appearance of the recipe like the torte itself is bittersweet. Summer is leaving. Fall is coming. That’s what your annual recipe is all about. Don’t be grumpy about it.’ ‘Perhaps,’ one New Yorker wrote, ‘it has become the adult version of September’s shiny new notebook for school.’ So it’s a very beloved recipe. And when this recipe went away, people were very sad about it, which is where we get comments like, ‘Who do you think you are? Take your torte and shove it.’ That’s a fun one. Anyway, while my original plum torte bakes, I’m going to do some variations. For this first variation, I’m going to use browned butter. The brown butter is only going to add this enhanced nutty flavor. What I’m going to do is I’m going to put my butter on the stove, wait for those fast, really sputtery bubbles, and then once they start to subside, I know that a lot of the moisture is cooked out of the butter. That’s when it’s becoming more viscous, and the milk solids are starting to brown. And I’m going to actually remove that from the stove top. And I’m going to put it in an ice bath. Stir it around in the ice bath, and then it kind of becomes more of that softened butter consistency that we used for the original recipe. I’m going to zest my lemon before I squeeze it on top. Lemon zest is delicious in a lot of things. I think it’ll pair really nicely with that fruit. A lot of readers suggested that, said it was delicious. And then another big ingredient change-up was instead of the cinnamon on top to do cardamom. So I’m going to use some cardamom. I’m going to use a cast-iron skillet. I think that a cast-iron skillet is something that a lot of people have. Not a lot of people have a springform pan. So we’re going to bake it in here and see how it turns out. Cool. So let’s get going.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Great. She’s ready to go in the oven for an hour. I read a lot about using alternative flours. So for this variation, I’m going to change out a 1/2 cup of the all purpose flour for semolina. I did see that some people had some great success with olive oil for our dairy-free friends out there. So I feel like the semolina and the olive oil is going to give it kind of this Italian countryside. It’s giving ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ It’s giving like Oliver and Elio eating a plum torte by the pool. This is my fantasy plum torte.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Wow. Look at all my children. They look good enough to eat. So let’s cut into them, shall we? Oh, my god. It’s so good. The texture is so great. The sugar on top gives it a little crunch. That cinnamon is like, oh, what is that? Is that cinnamon? And then the plums. This is something that makes the fruit the star. I’m very excited about this one. This is the brown butter with lemon zest, the turbinado sugar on top, and baked in a cast-iron skillet. Holy Moses. Wow. That’s really good. The lemon zest adds this brightness. The brown butter adds this nuttiness. The turbinado sugar on top makes it even crunchier than the original. It’s extremely good. And it baked up really well in the cast iron. O.K., this is our olive oil, semolina one. This is my Italian fantasy plum torte. Wow. That one’s really good. The olive oil really comes through. The semolina adds this really nice bite to the overall texture of everything. And the fruitiness of the olive oil makes this really sing. I kind of love all of them. I think that my ultimate version could be the cast-iron version just because I like brown butter. I like lemon zest. I like turbinado sugar. But this one is also fabulous. And you can never go wrong with the original. The beauty of recipes is that they are living entities that people can and should adapt to their tastes. If there is a recipe in the NYT Cooking database that is meant for people to add their personalities into it, it is this recipe. This is one of those that takes on many lives of its own. And it works with any fruit too. So you can make it year round. It is the perfect recipe. Full stop. That’s it. That’s the video.” [MUSIC PLAYING]


The torte, which is really more of a cake, came from Lois Levine, a childhood friend of Ms. Burros, who suggested it for a self-published cookbook they wrote together in 1960 called “Elegant but Easy.” It was named Fruit Torte, and included a fortuitous note at the top: “This deserves a 10-star rating on our list.”

The torte, which is really more of a cake, came from Lois Levine, a childhood friend of Ms. Burros, who suggested it for a self-published cookbook they wrote together in 1960 called “Elegant but Easy.” It was named Fruit Torte.

The recipe wasn’t just popular; it was endlessly adaptable. In 1991, a New Age Plum Torte was published that replaced the butter and eggs with bananas and egg substitute. An apple-cranberry variation appeared in 1994. Melissa Clark wrote about the ubiquitousness of the torte at Rosh Hashana celebrations in New York, and created her own whole-wheat version.

As newspaper clippings and recipe files have ceded ground to web pages and Pinterest boards, the torte has found a new set of admirers online. A recent Google search of “New York Times plum torte” yielded nearly 80,000 search results, many of them links to popular food bloggers extolling the ease and versatility of the recipe. The version here calls for three-quarters to one cup of sugar, a compromise that nods to both the first iteration of the recipe and the 1989 torte; we still think of it as the original.

We asked Ms. Burros, who is now retired, if she is still making the torte.

“Of course!” she said. “You have to.” In the summer, she prefers to use blueberries and peaches, and she doesn’t like it with the oversize plums available in midsummer. She holds out for the smaller blue-black Italian plums that arrive in early autumn. She often makes several and freezes them. (She once made two dozen in one go and asked her friend to store 12 in her freezer. She got 10 back.)

“I love that something so simple took off,” Ms. Burros said when asked about the recipe’s enduring popularity. “Of course, I think that’s why it did.”

When Amanda Hesser was collecting recipe suggestions from readers for “The Essential New York Times Cookbook,” published in 2010, 247 people nominated the torte. Ms. Hesser called it “a nearly perfect recipe.”

“That I was really proud of,” Ms. Burros said.

As of September 2023, the plum torte had over 10,000 ratings and almost 2,000 comments, most of them effusive. Ms. Burros finds all of this adulation “incredibly flattering.”

“Time marches on, and it’s all for the better,” she said, when she was told it was the 40th anniversary of the recipe’s publication in The Times. “If plum torte lives on for the rest of time, I’d be pretty happy with that.”

Have you made the plum torte recipe? Share your memories and notes in the comments.

Recipes: Original Plum Torte | Crunchy-Topped Whole-Wheat Plum Cake

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