Upside-down cakes have a lot more going for them than the mere novelty of being baked upside down. At their best, traditional upside-down cakes combine three elements—smooth caramel, juicy fruit topping, and tender cake—into one amazing combination of textures and flavors. The key to a great cake with a soft crumb and moist, tender topping lies, quite simply, in knowing how to make each component taste its very best.
What’s more, there’s not just one path to great results—upside-down cakes can be a mix-and-match affair. For the caramel, you can use traditional melted white sugar or a mixture of brown sugar and butter. For the topping, you can use fresh fruit, dried fruit, or even nuts. And you can vary the flavor of the cake, too.
After experimenting with a lot of combinations, I’ve come up with three really delicious upside-down cakes: fresh pineapple (how could I resist?), dried apricot and cranberry, and chocolate- nut. This last one is a definite departure from the fruit toppings you might expect, but after you’ve tried it, you’ll see why it’s one of the favorite cakes in my repertoire (even after the scores of upside-downers I made while working on this story).
Choose from two types of caramel
The caramel in an upside-down cake is like the icing on a cake—only it starts out on the bottom, which becomes the top. You can make a caramel from either white or brown sugar; both produce delicious and distinctive results.
A traditional caramel of boiled sugar and water gives the cakes a sophisticated sheen and a flavor I describe as bittersweet. I’ve used this type of caramel in the recipe for Dried Apricot & Cranberry Upside-Down Cakes. When poured into the ramekins, the caramel hardens immediately. Then, as the cakes bake and the fruit lets go of its juice, the caramel loosens into a glossy topping. It’s very important that the fruit you choose is sturdy enough to stay relatively intact yet juicy enough to dissolve the caramel as the cake bakes. (I think it’s one of the reasons that pineapple is often the upside-down cake fruit of choice). If the fruit isn’t juicy, the hardened caramel won’t loosen into a moist topping—it will stay stuck in the bottom of the pan, or it will come out in shards.
For flavor that’s the right degree of bittersweet, I like to cook this type of caramel to a deep amber. Paying attention to color gradation is the best way to-get the caramel just right, as you’ll see from the photos below. A little trial and error is okay here. If the caramel looks a bit too light after you’ve poured a little, no problem. Simply set the pot back on the heat to cook for ten seconds or so more and then pour again when the caramel is a touch darker. (If the caramel gets too dark, you’ll get too much burnt sugar flavor, so you’ll need to start over.) When pouring caramel for the apricot upside-down cakes, you’ll notice that the first ramekin will be lighter than the sixth, because the hot caramel will continue to cook and darken off the heat. Add the last bits of caramel to the lightest ramekin to even out the color and the flavor. When making caramel, be sure to use a heavy-based pot with a sturdy handle and a stainless interior, which lets you monitor color change in a way that a dark pan doesn’t. Work carefully—a burn from molten caramel is nasty.
Getting caramel just right
Brown sugar and butter make a simple, homey syrup that’s just the right amount of gooey. Calling this syrup caramel is using the term a little loosely; you don’t cook the brown sugar to a candy-like stage the way you do with the traditional white-sugar caramel described above. The brown sugar topping is the simpler of the two; you can use it for any of these cakes, and it’s the best choice for the Chocolate Nut Upside-Down Cake, since the nuts obviously won’t release any liquid as the cake bakes.
Try juicy fresh fruit or poached dried fruit for the topping
I make upside-down cakes with all kinds of fresh fruit, as long as it’s ripe and juicy. You can turn out delicious versions using pears, peaches, apricots, apples, cherries, and, of course, pineapple.
Dried fruit works, too, when you poach it first. Last winter during a blizzard, I had a yen for upside-down cake but hadn’t a single piece of fresh fruit in the house. Much to my delight, though, I discovered that dried fruit makes a great upsidedown cake topping when it’s softened and plumped before being arranged on the set caramel. This is particularly important if you’re using traditional caramel, which, again, needs juices to liquefy it during baking. Apple juice, cranberry juice, orange juice, and even white wine all work well as a poaching medium. Dried fruit soaks up juice, and it usually won’t need draining after poaching. For the apricot upside-down cake, you’ll reserve some of the poaching liquid to drizzle into each lined ramekin before you pour in the batter to-ensure that the caramel softens sufficiently during-baking.
Overlap the fruit but don’t overload the pan. An overcrowded pan will make for a sloppy-looking, soggy finished cake. For the best balance between cake and fruit, slice the fruit about a quarter-inch thick and overlap it just slightly. I usually scatter the fruit slices for a casual, more rustic feel, but if you like a more patterned look, go ahead and arrange it more formally.
The cake needs to be sturdy yet spongy—and have a tangy flavor
The cake is the third member of the upside-down trio, and texture is key. Rich butter cakes and pound cakes are too dense to absorb the flavors, while light sponge cakes (like traditional French génoises or chiffon cakes) aren’t sturdy enough to support the fruit and juices. A tender cake that’s not too light or too heavy is best. Like many other cakes, my upside-down cakes have the best texture when the batter is mixed until just blended. Overmixing will result in holes and tunnels (a sure sign of an overworked batter) and in a tough, dense cake, rather than a tender one.
I like to keep the cake’s flavor simple so that it doesn’t upstage the fruit and caramel. A bit of grated orange zest or cinnamon gives the cake a little flavor bridge to the other components without overwhelming them. And I moisten the batter with either yogurt or buttermilk, both of which give the cake a subtle tang and tender crumb that make a nice contrast to the sweet caramel and fruit juices.
I know it’s a huge leap of faith to just flip a cake pan over, so here are a couple of hints to make sure that all goes well. First, as soon as the cake comes out of the oven, run a paring knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Then, immediately cover it with a flat plate and flip the pan over. Don’t be afraid—just do it. Let the inverted pan rest for about 5 minutes (no peeking) to let the heat from the cake help loosen the topping. Next, gently lift the pan, pause