If I mention upside-down cake, you’ll probably picture a neon concoction with pineapple and maraschino cherries. The cake became popular in the early 1900s, when pineapple was first canned. But it’s been with us since the Middle Ages, when cooks used seasonal fruits and cast-iron pans.
Since apples are my favorite way to welcome cold weather (I first made this in the fall, when apples were at their peak. It was so delicious that I had to share.), I used them in upside-down cake. All the recipes I’ve seen call for briefly sautéing the apples, then transferring them to a baking pan. People, you’re losing the yum yums! If you cook something in a skillet, keep the browned bits in there.
I followed the tradition of tarte Tatin by caramelizing apples with butter and sugar in a cast-iron skillet. But instead of topping it with pie dough, I used low-fat yellow cake, from the infallible Alice Medrich. The buttermilk gives the cake tang and tenderness, while the gooey caramel apples glisten like jewels. When I first made this, my friend and I ate a quarter of it, knowing that I’d have to serve it for Thanksgiving the next night. In the following days, three slices easily equaled one serving.
There are dozens of apple varieties, but I recommend Golden Delicious, as it keeps its shape when cooked and isn’t too tart. If you’re lucky enough to score Golden Russets at the farmers market in the fall, they’re even better. Beneath the sandpaper skin lies juicy, gingery flesh.
Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake
Special equipment: a 9-inch cast-iron skillet (preferred), or any pan without non-stick coating. If your pan has plastic handles, cover them Â with several layers of foil.
For the caramel apples:
6 medium-large Golden Delicious apples (about three pounds)
1/2 stick butter
1 cup sugar
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (6 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/8 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup 1% fat buttermilk (Substitute: place 1/2 tablespoon vinegar in a measuring cup and fill with milk until it equals 1/2 cup. Let stand for 5 minutes.)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
Make the caramel apples:
Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Melt butter in the pan. Remove from the heat and sprinkle sugar evenly over the bottom.
Tightly arrange the apples, flat side down, in a ring against the sides of the skillet. Fill in the center of the skillet with the remaining apple quarters. Keep in mind that the apples will shrink while cooking. You may have a couple pieces of apples left.
Place the skillet over the highest possible heat and cook, stirring, until the juices turn from butterscotch to deep amber, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat. Spear the apples with a fork or the point of a paring knife and flip them onto their uncooked sides. Return the skillet to the heat and boil for two minutes more. Apples will continue to cook even after you turn off the heat.
Make the cake:
Have all ingredients at room temperature. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325° F.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. In a small bowl, beat the eggs together. In another small bowl, combine the vanilla and buttermilk. Set all three bowls aside.
Cut the butter into chunks and place in a large bowl. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat till softened, about 1 minute. Gradually add the sugar, beating for about 3 minutes. Gradually drizzle in the eggs, beating at medium-high speed for 2 to 3 minutes. On low speed, beat in a third of the flour mixture, scraping the bowl with a spatula as needed. On medium-high speed, gradually drizzle in half the milk, continuing to scrape the bowl. On low speed, beat in half of the remaining flour, then the rest of the milk on high speed. Beat in the remaining flour on low speed just until combined, and continue to scrape the bowl as needed. The batter may look curdled.
Scrape the batter over the apples and bake for about one hour, or the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, the top is golden brown, and a toothpick inserted through the center comes out clean.
Cool for 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate. If the caramel has cooled too much and becomes hard, place the pan over a low flame for a couple minutes to loosen the caramel.