Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake

apple caramel upside-down cake

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

Topping adapted from The 1997 Joy of Cooking; cake adapted from Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich

Special equipment: a 9-inch cast-iron skillet (preferred), or any pan without non-stick coating. If your pan has plastic handles, cover them  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.

Related Links:
More apple desserts
Banana upside-down brownies
The history of upside-down cakes

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Chunky Chocolate-Apple Coffee Cake

chunky chocolate-apple coffee cake

I admit I’ve scooped several cartons of cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream, taking the Oreo chunks and leaving behind the vanilla ice cream. I’ve seen other people maim crumb cake, slowly picking at the top until it resembles a giant network of holes. It’s all for the love of chunky bits. Tell me, what’s the latest topping/mix-in that you’ve picked at?

For all of us chunk stealers, I wanted to make a coffee cake that would never run out of bits, no matter how many times you picked at it. I started with seasonal apples, added chocolate (because everything tastes better with chocolate), then walnuts and streusel. To keep the batter light, I first looked to a butterless, eggless recipe in the Joy of Cooking. While it could easily be veganized (substitute the buttermilk with soy milk and apple cider vinegar), it actually had more sugar and fat than the regular recipe.

Vegetable oil is a “good” fat, but if you use a lot and it doesn’t have any flavor, it’s not worth it. I’d rather use a small amount of the good stuff. So, eggs and butter were back in. Traditional cakes get their light texture by whipping air into butter and sugar. Then eggs are added, just until they are incorporated. Since this recipe doesn’t have a lot of butter, you instead beat the heck out of the eggs, until the mixture becomes light and fluffy.

All the mix-ins balance out the lean cake. If you’re looking for something lighter, you can omit the streusel topping (see the variation below) or chocolate chips. Don’t be scared by all the steps below; they’re only there because of all the goodies.

Chunky Chocolate-Apple Coffee Cake

Chunky Chocolate-Apple Coffee Cake

This over-the-top cake gets its chunks from apples, walnuts and chocolate chips. The streusel sinks into the cake and resembles soft cinnamon bun filling.

(Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours, 30 minutes active)

Adapted from recipes and techniques from The Joy of Cooking, Coffee Cakes and Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts

For the cinnamon streusel:
1/3 cups Grape-Nuts cereal
1/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg white
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 tsp vanilla

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 large Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and diced into half-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
2/3 cup chocolate chips
1 cup plain yogurt, buttermilk or sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
5 Tbsp (1/2 stick plus 1 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs

  1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9″-round springform pan.
  2. To make the streusel:
    • In a small bowl, stir together the Grape-Nuts cereal, walnuts, sugar, flour and cinnamon.
    • In a separate bowl, beat together the egg white, butter and vanilla.
    • Stir the egg white mixture into the cereal mixture with a fork. Cover and refrigerate.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Set aside.
  4. In another medium bowl, toss the apples and chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp of the flour mixture. This way, they won’t sink to the bottom of the cake.
  5. In a small bowl or cup, combine the yogurt (or what you have chosen) with the vanilla and set aside.
  6. In a large bowl (the last one, I promise), cream the butter with an electric mixer until soft, about 1 minute. Add the sugars gradually, beating for about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one by one, at medium-high speed until light colored and airy, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the liquids in two parts, beating on low speed or stirring until smooth and scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary. Just before the batter comes together, gently stir in the apples and chocolate chips.
  8. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Evenly sprinkle the top with large dollops of streusel.
  9. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the edges are brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (except when touching the apples and chocolate chips). Cool the cake on a rack for 15 minutes, then unmold. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Serves 12.

Nutrition per serving (121 g): CALORIES 330 (32% from fat); FAT 12 g (sat 8g); PROTEIN 6 g; CHOLESTEROL 52 mg; CALCIUM 10%; SODIUM 193 mg; FIBER 3g; CARBOHYDRATE 53 g. (If made with 50% whole wheat flour and plain low-fat yogurt.)


Whole wheat coffee cake: Substitute 1 cup whole-wheat flour for 1 cup of all-purpose flour.

Simplified: Omit the streusel and add 1 tsp cinnamon to the flour mixture. Sprinkle the top of the batter with 1/2 cup toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts.

This is an experimental recipe. I used a couple tablespoons more buttermilk than called for, and the middle took a long time to cook while the edges got dry. That’s why I reduced the liquid to one cup. I also only baked half a cake for 45 minutes, so the cooking time above is an estimate. My oven loses heat quickly, so it should take you less time. I also only used half a stick of butter, and my edges were slightly rubbery (the result of gluten formation and over baking). The extra tablespoon of butter should do the trick.

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Fall for this apple cake

fog on the apple farm

During fall in New York, the air gets refreshingly crisp, just like the season’s apples. You know the CRUNCH you hear in the Washington Apple commercials? It’s so loud that it sounds fake, but it’s exactly how good apples are over here.

King David apples

On this first day of fall, my friends and I went apple picking (we city folk are easily entertained). Here’s a recipe to put the season’s bounty to use. It’s the only 100% whole wheat cake worthy to be called dessert. Instead of being thrown in for the sake of being whole grain, the whole wheat lends an extra earthiness to the fruit. The flour’s bitterness is offset with boiled cider. (King Arthur’s Whole Grain Baking says that any acid, such as orange juice, masks whole wheat’s bitterness. You only need to add a little, and you won’t taste the oranges.) While this cake is high in fiber, it’s by no means low fat. The deep, caramel flavor is lovely, so you skip the frosting it if you like.

apple cake

Legacy Apple Cake (adapted from King Arthur Whole Grain Baking)

Makes 1 rectangular or 9-inch round cake


Butter (for greasing the pan)
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (traditional or white whole wheat), plus more for the pan
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, or 2 teaspoons apple pie spice
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup boiled cider or apple juice concentrate
3 apples, peeled, seeded, and chopped or 1 1/3 cup applesauce
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch square pan or a 9-inch round pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice or apple pie spice; set aside.
  3. Using an electric mixer in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the brown and granulated sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, stopping between each addition to scrape the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. Beat in vanilla, cider (or apple juice) and the applesauce (if using).
  4. With the mixer set on low speed, beat in the flour mixture until evenly moistened.
  5. Toss the walnuts and apples (if using) with 1 teaspoon of the flour mixture. This step ensures that the chunks don’t sink to the bottom of the cake.
  6. With a rubber spatula, fold the apples (if using) and walnuts into the cake batter.
  7. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. The round cake pan will take closer to 60 minutes.
  8. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool.


Double this recipe if frosting a double layer cake

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. In a small pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in brown sugar and salt. Cook, stirring, until the sugar melts. Add the milk, bring to a boil, and pour into a mixing bowl. Cool for 10 minutes.
  2. Stir in confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Beat well; if the mixture seems too thin, add more confectioners’ sugar. Use the frosting while it is still warm.

To serve:

Frost the cake. If you are making a round layer cake, level the cake with a large serrated knife. Then cut the cake into two even layers. If only it were that easy, right? The norm is to saw the knife back and forth into the cake. I always get raggedy edges with lots of crumbs.

Baker Linda Dann taught me an easier way. If you are right handed, hold your cutting arm against your body. With knife in hand, bend your forearm so it’s parallel to the cake. Steadily place your free left hand on top of the cake and turn it counter-clockwise into the knife. Don’t move your cutting hand. Keep pushing/rotating the cake into the knife, and you’ll get a clean cut. If you are left handed, switch the hands and rotate the cake clockwise.


Boiled cider is simply apple cider that’s been concentrated till it’s thick and syrupy. To make it, reduce 1 1/2 cups of regular cider in an uncovered pot till you have 1/4 cup. I think this took me half an hour.

For a reduced fat version, replace 1/2 stick of butter with 1/4 cup of applesauce. Add the applesauce with the cider.

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As Easy as Tarte Tatin

tarte tatin

If America could be symbolized as one object, it could be an apple pie. Round, wholesome and homey, the pie evokes images colonial cooking. Just imagine crisp apples freshly picked off of trees and combined with a hand-formed crust.

Never mind that apple pies actually came from Europe, and the phrase “As American as apple pie” was a marketing campaign created by New York apple growers. Plus, pie crusts are prone to innumerous problems: tearing, sticking, toughening, and getting soggy.  So pie isn’t exactly easy.

Enter the solution: the easiest yet most impressive looking “pie” is the French tarte tatin. Legend has it that in 1898, the Tatin sisters accidentally left apples stewing on the stove and rescued the dish by putting pastry on top and flipping it over.

I love tarte Tatin because it doesn’t matter if you have a misshapen crust. It will be covered by the apples. Don’t be fooled by the short ingredient list; neither spices, thickeners nor lemon juice are needed. Fresh out of the oven, the caramel is gooey, the apples chewy and the crust crispy. The recipe below makes one of the best apple pies I’ve ever had in my life.

It’s important to choose apples that keep their shape after cooking. Generally, sweeter apples like Galas don’t hold up, while tart apples like Granny Smiths have great texture. The best compromise is a Golden Delicious or Jonagold (a cross between the tart Jonathan and sweet Golden Delicious). I usually buy whatever apples are on sale, but the apple type really matters. Don’t use Macintoshes or Jonamacs (a cross between Jonathans and Macouns): you’ll just get apple sauce. More info about apple varieties is at the New York Apple Association’s site.

The crust has two unusual ingredients: egg and vinegar. Egg makes it rich, while vinegar makes it flake on contact. The vinegar also makes the crust shrink after baking, but it’s a slight shortcoming. After trying this all-butter recipe, you may never go back to a vegetable shortening crust again. (Cooks use shortening because it’s less likely to melt from the heat of your hands, but it does nothing for flavor or texture.)

Pie Crust

Adapted from a Sunset magazine cookbook
Makes barely enough for three single-crust 9-inch pies or too much for two.

3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup (2 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 egg, well beaten
1 Tbsp vinegar
4 Tbsp ice cold water

Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Add butter and cut into flour. You may use a pastry blender, two knives or your hands. Smoosh the butter with the flour and continue till the biggest pieces are pea-sized and the smallest pieces resemble bread crumbs.

Combine egg and vinegar in a small bowl and add it to the flour mixture. Add water 1 Tbsp at a time, just until the crust just begins to come together. Smoosh the dough together so it forms a solid mass. You should still see large striations of butter.

Divide dough in half and press each half into a round flat disk, and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, preferably for several hours and for up to two days before rolling. This step lets the dough relax so it doesn’t get tough. The dough can also be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 6 months; thaw completely before rolling.

If you refrigerated the dough for more than a couple hours, let it warm up on the counter for about 15 minutes so it’s pliable. You want the dough to be cold, so the butter doesn’t melt. But if it’s too cold, it will be stiff and crack when you roll it.

Roll the dough on a flat floured surface (a wax-paper lined counter works well). Lean into a floured rolling pin and roll from the center out, stopping just short of the edge. Keep rotating the dough 90 degrees to ensure that it’s not sticking and to shape it into an even circle. If the dough cracks or tears, push it back together. If the shape is uneven, cut off the portruding piece and patch it on the short side with cold water. If the dough becomes too soft and starts sticking, slide it on top of a rimless cookie sheet and refrigerate it until it firms up. It is not unusual for all these things to happen. The crust should be about 1/8-inch thick.

If you plan on making a custard pie (ie pumpkin, lemon meringue or pecan), prick the crust with a fork and blind bake (cover the shaped crust with foil and weigh it down with dried beans, rice or metal pie weights) at 425F for 12 minutes. Then remove the foil, brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for a few minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. I have never had a soggy pie crust with these directions. When you bake the filling, cover the edges of crust with foil (you’ll need several pieces plus tape). If making a double-crusted pie or tarte tatin, there’s no need to blind bake. But do brush with egg wash and sprinkle the crust with sugar to keep it crispy.

If you have extra pie dough, make empanadas by filling small disks with chocolate chips, mashed bananas, Nutella or nuts. Fold each disk over and seal. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 425F for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Tarte Tatin

adapted from The Joy of Cooking

You will need any ovenproof, deep, heavy skillet measuring 7-8 inches across the bottom and 10-11 inches across the top. Cast iron works well because of its heat retaining properties, but you may find it too heavy when unmolding the tart. I’ve heard you can use a pan with a plastic handle if you cover the handle with several layers of aluminum foil. I’m not sure if a Teflon-coated pan can withstand the heat though, especially in light of recent lawsuits.


1/2 recipe pie dough, puff pastry or store-bought pie dough (make sure it has real butter!)
6 medium-large Golden Delicious apples (about three pounds)
1 stick butter (can reduce to 1/2 stick)
1 cup sugar

Prepare the pie dough. Roll into a 12-inch round, slip a rimless cookie sheet beneath it, and refrigerate. If using puff pastry, dock the dough with a fork so it doesn’t rise to be one-inch thick in the oven.

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375F.

Peel, core, and quarter lengthwise the apples. Melt butter in the skillet chosen for the tarte. Remove from the heat and sprinkle sugar evenly over the bottom.

Arrange a ring of apple quarters against the sides of the pan, standing the apples on the thin edge of their cut side so as to fit as many as possible. Fill in the center of the skillet with the remaining apple quarters. You may have a piece or two of apples leftover.

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 from the heat and slide the prepared crust onto the aples. Being careful not to burn your fingers, gently tuck the edges of the dough against the inner sides of the skillet. If the crust tears, patch it up with a paste created with flour and water. Brush the crust with egg wash (a beaten egg and a Tbsp of water) and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake the tart until the crust is richly browned, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes, then loosen the sides with a knife and invert the tart onto a serving plate that can withstand the heat. Return any apples that stick to the skillet to their proper place on top of the tart. If you let the tarte cool too long, the caramel will harden and the apples will not come loose. In that case, just heat the pan on the stove to remelt the caramel.

Serve immediately or let stand at room temperature for up to 8 hours. When ready to serve, warm the tart to tepid in an oven heated at the lowest setting.


The apples have a great buttery caramel taste, but the tart’s only one inch tall (I like the texture of deep-dish apple pie).  Anyone have suggestions on how to caramelize apples in a traditional pie without cooking them to death? Tyler Florence’s Ultimate Caramel Apple Pie looks promising.

If the apples don’t come out on the first flip, don’t force them out with a spatula. Instead, reheat the pan over the stove to soften the caramel. Otherwise, you’ll end up with broken pieces like this:

full tarte tatin

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