Flipping Out

Upside-Down Cake

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

“The world’s turned upside-down,” we say, shaking our heads over the news when it’s particularly unusual or crazy, which lately seems to be more often than ever.

It’s hard to remember in such discombobulated times, but upside-down-ness does have its joyful sides. Consider children somersaulting across a green lawn or hanging from playground monkey bars, cheerleaders cartwheeling on a brisk fall day, dizzying topsy-turvy rides at the county fair. Think of lean yoga instructors doing headstands and handstands with seemingly calm effortlessness.

And then there’s dessert. When it comes to dessert, a certain miracle of upside-down-ness takes the cake. And this miracle can happen with yoga-like calm effortlessness. Upside-down cakes are easy. Their putting-together is easy. Their batter is easy. Decorating them (because their topping is inherent — no frosting necessary) is super-easy. Cleaning up from them (because there are so few dishes to wash) is easy. Even flipping them out of the pan — the idea of which might inspire trepidation until you have actually done it — is also easy.

Easy, yet showy. And definitively delicious. Though we all know the canned pineapple/maraschino cherry version, upside-down cakes happily accommodate almost any fruit from orchard or garden, fresh, canned, dried or in combination. And not just accommodate — when the fresh seasonal fruit, a bit tart and textural, replaces canned pineapple, the swoon factor is greatly amplified, adding a new dimension to the already appealing single note of sweet, jammy, caramelized goo.

All these cakes do start with a layer of fruit in this goo: a sweet, syrupy, buttery glaze in the bottom of a heavy pan or skillet. Over this, a good from-scratch, but not elaborate, cake batter is poured. After baking, in a culinary sleight of hand that is not without drama (though, again, it’s easy — I promise), the whole is flipped — literally reversed out onto a serving plate. Voilà! The fruit underneath is now a gloriously attractive topping, its glossy prettiness one you might expect to see in the window of a French pâtisserie.

In fact, though what we think of as upside-down cake is an American invention, its conceptual origins may lie in France, perhaps with a beginning like the following delightful piece of upside-down apocrypha.

The story begins one exceptionally busy day at a small inn, about a hundred miles south of Paris. This auberge, called Hôtel Tatin, was run by two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin. Stéphanie, who did the cooking while her sister worked the front of the house, got distracted in the midst of her pie preparations and allowed the apples she was sautéing in butter and sugar to cook on the stove a tad too long. She smelt the distinctive fragrance of sugar caramelizing, turned — zut alors! — and snatched the pan from the heat. She then attempted a quick save (I have worked in restaurants on busy nights and am familiar with such Hail Mary maneuvers) by placing a round of what would have been the bottom pastry crust on top of the skillet of apples. She then whipped the whole shebang into a hot oven and let it bake until the crust was golden-brown. When she removed it, in a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention move, Stéphanie took her chances and flipped the still hot tart onto a plate. It left the baking dish, the same skillet in which she had almost but not quite burnt the apples, effortlessly. A legend — what is known as tarte tatin, now ubiquitous throughout France — was born.

But that, remember, was an upside-down pie. The pastry was crisp, buttery and unsweet. Not so our version. Upside-down cake is definitely American and is, I think, more interesting. We tend to think of this cake as old-fashioned, but it only goes back a few generations — to 1924, when the recipe was first published in a Seattle fund-raising cookbook. Several versions followed, including one in a 1925 Gold Medal Flour ad. But its appearance in a 1936 Sears Roebuck catalog is probably what fixed it as a jewel in the crown of American home baking.

And, as one bite of this non-pineapple upside-down cake will show you, it deserves every sparkle of its acclaim.

Now, this version of upside-down cake is a little less glamorous visually than its cousins (the blueberries and blackberries in the topping come out less like a stained-glass window and more like a shiny layer of blueberry pie filling). But in featuring a panoply of summer berries, it overcompensates for its less decorative looks with its extraordinary flavor. In addition to the aforementioned berries in the reversed-out topping (which, like all such cakes, begins at the bottom), the moist, nutmeg-scented cake batter itself is dotted with fresh raspberries. It is so good that no gussying up is required. It would actually be a distraction. Trust me on this; no vanilla ice cream, no whipped cream. Just enjoy it as is, with either coffee or a glass of cold milk. The cake is especially delicious when still slightly warm.

If there is any left over by the next morning (unlikely), it is pretty much guaranteed that there will be fighting over who gets the last piece at breakfast. And if you find yourself hankering for it in winter, try substituting fresh cranberries for the blueberries and blackberries, and a cup of pomegranate seeds for the raspberries.