My house near Seattle, Washington, sits on what used to be an orchard. We're surrounded by other houses now, but, lucky for me, a 50-year-old Italian plum tree survived all the construction and still stands guard beside my neighbor's home. Every September I get a call from my neighbor telling me it's picking time, and I walk through the hedges separating our properties carrying a big metal bucket to harvest as many of the gorgeous, deep purple plums as I want. I always eat a few right off the tree; they've got a slightly tart, almost lemony flavor that's totally different from the more sugary taste of standard red and black plums. That makes them great for baking. Italian plums, which you can get in many supermarkets from July to September in most parts of the country, get softer and a little sweeter as they ripen on the tree, but I prefer to pick them early, when they're still firm enough to hold their shape when you cook them. I make a great rustic tart with the fruit, and I also like to use my Italian plums in an upside-down cake, covered with a blanket of caramel. —Susan F. Raunig, Kirkland, Washington
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