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.
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.
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 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
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.