The iconic upside-down cake of the American imagination is a golden sponge gilded with a slick of caramel, a corona of sweetened pineapple rings and incandescent maraschino cherries. Yet as sunshiny as it may seem, it hardly qualifies as a seasonal treat since, in traditional recipes, anyway, its crowning glory comes straight from an aluminum can.
So what's an upside-down cake fiend to do in high summer, when market stalls burst with succulent plums, tart cherries, perfumed peaches and plump apricots, and it feels downright criminal not to capitalize on such bounty? Put your nostalgic attachments aside and improvise.
Channel those cake cravings into variations on the theme that retain the idiot-proof ease and sweetness of the original, yet take inspiration not from Dole but from the summer's avalanche of amazing fruit.
That's what I've been doing since June, anyway, when a spur-of-the-moment trip through the farmers market left me with pounds of rhubarb but not even a smidgen of energy to start in on a pie crust. Instead, I chopped the pink stalks into rough chunks and dropped them — along with a heaping cup of brown sugar, a fat knob of butter and a crushed inch or two of fresh ginger — into my biggest cast-iron pan. I stirred and simmered and reduced until all that remained was a layer of tart, jammy compote. Then, riffing off that flash of ginger, I mixed up a spartan gingerbread batter and spread it on top. Not 40 minutes later (and with a deft inversion of the pan, of course) I had a grown-up upside-down cake that was equally at home as an accompaniment to my morning coffee as it was with a scoop of vanilla ice cream after dinner.
Happily, since that success, inspiration has appeared everywhere. A pint of cherries? They practically begged for the company of almond cake. A basket of blueberries? I let the quintessential muffin be my guide and paired them with a cinnamon crumb. The concept of the upside-down cake, after all, doesn't exactly demand kitchen wizardry.
Undoubtedly one of the reasons it has remained a staple in the home cook's repertoire all these years is that the only gear it requires is a mixing bowl, a skillet and a working oven. Even on hot summer days, you'll barely break a sweat. No fuss, no muss — and hardly any dirty dishes. Just deliciousness.
Indeed, affection for upside-down cakes knows no national boundaries.
The beloved tartes Tatins of France are close cousins, with wide slices of apples caramelized in brown sugar and butter in a copper pan, nestled in a buttery puff-pastry crust and baked. And in Brazil, a bolo de banana — a tropical version of the cake lined with long slices of ripe banana — is a staple in bakeries from São Paulo to Salvador.
Clearly, the appeal of the upside-down cake to eaters is well established. But start making them and you'll soon discover the allure for cooks is equally evident: After one masters the basic recipe — a warmed pan of brown sugar and butter caramel is piled first with fruit and then a cake batter, before being baked and inverted — the permutations are nearly endless.
In fact, in the course of my experiments these last few weeks, my strategy has been to brainstorm classic flavor pairings and then try to translate them into cake form.
Fragrant peaches were tossed in honeyed syrup and found a love match with a crumbly cake spiked with a generous jigger of dark rum. Mangoes cozied up with piles of unsweetened coconut flakes and a blanket of dense golden sponge enriched with coconut milk. And apricots sliced into crescents and drizzled with caramel formed a perfect mosaic atop a rustic cornmeal cake perfumed with orange flower water.
Which is not to say there weren't missteps. While the two make grand companions in so many other culinary iterations, the fudgy chocolate cake I rimmed with sweet cherries emerged from the pan a muddy mess. The hitch? Ultimately the decadent cake, while delicious on its own, entirely masked the subtle bite of the cherries.
Still, every error leads to a lesson learned, so added to my upside-down improviser's handbook is this: When it comes to designing your amalgamation of fruit and crumb, always err on the side of letting the fruit star. And tart varieties that have a little extra acidity, like nectarines, blueberries, plums — or even, in winter, lemons — seem to wear their caramel coat especially well.
Another entry in the improviser's handbook: Keep an eye on proportion.
Whether you choose peaches or apples, they'll shrink considerably while baking — so skimp at your peril. My tack is to layer and then layer some more, the goal being a nearly even ratio of crumbly cake to jammy fruit. An extra-wide cast-iron skillet (10 inches at a minimum) has long been the traditional vessel for an upside-down cake — perhaps because even early cooks realized the aesthetic appeal of a well-proportioned specimen, and the wider the diameter of the pan, the shallower the cake.
But ultimately, to sweat over an inch or two of pan size would be contrary to the sweet, forgiving spirit of this American classic. The truth is that perfectly delicious versions of the upside-down cake can be achieved with a battery of other kitchen tools, like a 9-inch round or springform pan. (Though, of course, the need to prepare the caramel on the stovetop in a separate skillet adds significantly to the dirty-dish tally.)
Still, for klutzy cooks, the extra housework may be worth it: Springform pans transform the sometimes scary (think molten caramel, searing metal) task of inverting the cake into a cinch — simply place a platter on top, flip, release the pan's spring and remove the sides.
The trade-off is that the seams in the pan also love to shed rivers of sticky caramel syrup — so unless you want to spend the remainder of the summer scrubbing your oven, don't even think about turning on the gas without first placing the pan over a baking sheet.
After it's done, however, the only work left to do is wait. Designed for nibbling, an upside-down cake is at its best at room temperature and, like all fresh things, on the day it's made. But that's hardly a hitch. After all, drenched in caramel, tempting and full of summer sunshine, these are treats whose life spans would be best measured in minutes, not hours.