Thursday, May 10, 2012

Strawberry upside-down cake

I like making upside-down cakes. They can be a bit of a gamble: Will the whole thing come out of the pan beautifully, or will it crumble into a delicious, but hideous mess? When they come out well, they can be so beautiful: Glorious jewel-like fruit glistening in deep-brown caramel both gooey and with a lacy edge of crispness. Then there is the contrast of the slight hit of acid from the fruit against soft sweet cake. Oh yeah...

The other thing I like about them is that they are endlessly variable. Once you get a basic batter and caramel down, you can switch up the fruit and the flavor of the batter in nearly endless ways (which just sparked an idea about inventing a savory upside-down cake at some point--maybe later this summer with tomatoes and some of the beautiful goat cheese from Cherry Glen--but I digress). For example, during summer you could use peaches, plums, cherries, blackberries--whatever is fresh and good and loading down the tables at the farmer's market. In fall, you could use apples, pears, and cranberries. To complement different fruits, you could flavor the batter with lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla--whatever strikes your fancy and suits your tastes.

In this case, my fancy was struck when I went looking for strawberry-intensive recipes for a treat to bring to a brunch. I came across several tasty ones at Joy the Baker's blog, including a brown butter banana strawberry bread (looks so delicious) and a strawberry balsamic flatbread (most intriguing), but what really sparked my thinking was the strawberry upside-down cake with cardamom. Oh yeah! I could make an upside-down cake with strawberries. Only, instead of using cardamom, I would caramelize the strawberries, and instead of cinnamon in my batter, I would use lemon zest because lemon and strawberries just play so nicely together. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.

So I got to work. I had a quart of strawberries from the farmer's market to hull (I bought two actually, but the other one is for eating fresh), caramel to make, and a batter to whip up. Here's how to proceed.*

  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp local honey
  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced 
(If you aren't using a cast-iron skillet to make this cake, make the caramel separately on the stove and then pour it into the cake pan you plan to use; use an 8- to 9-inch pan. Springform would probably help you out a bunch.)
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  2. Melt the butter, let it get foamy and slightly brown. (Keep an eye on it, you do not want burnt butter in your cake. Or in any dish you make, ever.)
  3. Add brown sugar and honey and stir until the brown sugar is mostly melted. 
  4. Take the pan off the heat and add the strawberries. (The heat of the sugar-butter mixture will slightly cook the strawberries, and a scent will rise that is indescribably beautiful. Just breathe it in and count yourself lucky to experience such a thing of ephemeral beauty.) If you are using a cake pan, pour the whole mixture into the pan. Set it aside while you make the batter.   

Cake Batter
  • 6 Tbsp butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • zest from one lemon, finely chopped or grated
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Using a stand mixer, whip the butter silly. No. Sorry. Whip the butter until it's fluffy. The paddle attachment is good for this.  
  2. Add the sugar to the butter and whip that until it's creamy. If you are starting with cold butter, this could take a while.
  3. While the butter and sugar are working, add flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest to a bowl. Mix everything together with a whisk and set it aside. 
  4. OK, now that your butter and sugar is fluffy and pale gold, add one egg at a time. Beat them into the butter-sugar mixture until fluffy. Even more fluffy! Lots of fluffy. 
  5. Next, mix in the vanilla extract. 
  6. Finally add the flour mixture and the milk, alternating between about a third of the flour and a third of the milk until you've added it all. Mix until the flour and the milk are just incorporated and then stop the machine. (If you keep beating the batter, you will get a tough cake. And you don't want a tough cake unless you are planning to throw it at someone you are mad at. And why would you be mad at someone? You have these gorgeous strawberries and this fluffy cake batter.)
  7. Scrape the batter over the strawberries and caramel and smooth the batter as best you can (this is a thick batter that doesn't spread very easily, but don't worry about it being uneven; it will spread nicely in the oven). 
  8. Slide the pan into the hot oven and let it bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes. Take it out and let it cool for 30 minutes before flipping it over onto a serving plate. Enjoy it warm or cold. Serve it with ice cream or some fresh whipped cream or all by itself.

* This recipe was adapted from this oh-so-good plum upside-down cake from Epicurious.


  1. I am tempted to stop at that wonderful warm topping and grab a spoon. . . . maybe over some vanilla ice cream. . . .
    Sally G.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Abby! It's delicious, and I agree with Sally G. that you could definitely use the strawberry caramel as an ice cream topping or spooned over shortcake. It smells so good when you make it.