Sunday, November 20, 2005

Cranberry Upside-Down cake

Now this particular cake, as you have noticed by its title and appearance, is made with cranberries, but I have baked it with many other fruits ranging from the classic pineapple to the bracingly delicious rhubarb; come spring, I am even somewhat famous for the latter version. But cranberries are just so gorgeous in their ruby way, and they’re so delightfully seasonal in the bright cold of November. Although, please note that I am not recommending that you make this for Thanksgiving, because to tamper with anybody’s pie tradition is like erecting a wailing wall around your grateful table, and believe me—it’s just not worth it. But it’s a nice little cake to make this week, when you’ve picked up an extra bag of cranberries and are feeling festive.
A few notes on children. A sinkful of water, with a bag of cranberries dumped in? Oh, it’s good. Do this, even if you’re not making the cake. It’s worth the cost of the berries just to watch your kids’ ecstatic relationship to those tiny bobbing orbs. Give them a small sieve, spoons, funnels, whatever—and then ask them to please do you a big favor and wash the berries for you, and fish them out into a colander when they’re done. Then run yourself a bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read the Boden catalogue cover to cover, because the kids will be happy for an hour. Then put the Boden catalogue straight into the recycling, because why torture yourself, and go bake a cake.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

For topping
1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)
3/4 cup plus packed light brown sugar
1 12-ounce bag cranberries (if using frozen, don’t thaw them first)

For cake
1 1/2 cups flour (I use half spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon grated orange zest (1 large orange)
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup milk

Heat the oven to 350. Now begin with the topping. I prepare and bake this cake in a very well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet; if you’re going to be using a cake pan, then you will need to do the butter and brown sugar part in the oven, and you may want to line the pan with parchment first, but I’m not entirely sure. For skillet-users: melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Spread the mixture out as best you can, and leave it to cool while you prepare the cake batter.
Sift (or, hello lazy friend, whisk) together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Meanwhile, in an electric mixer, you are beating together the butter and sugar until they are very fluffy—stopping to scrape down the bowl if there’s a dead spot down there, below the beater, like there is with mine. Add the vanilla, the orange zest, and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. With the mixer on low speed add the flour alternately with the buttermilk and milk, which you’ve sensibly mixed together in the measuring cup. Do you know how to do this alternating thing? A third of the flour goes in, you mix it until it just disappears, then add half the milk and mix briefly, then more flour, etc, ending with flour (three lots of flour, two lots of milk, alternate side of the street parking Wednesdays and Fridays). Beat until just combined, or risk overbeating and baking something with the delicate texture of an anvil. 
Now pour your clean berries (I rub them dry in a clean dish towel) into the prepared pan, shake to even them out, and spoon the batter over them in large blobs which you will smooth and spread together very gently with a spatula so as not to disturb the berries which are, shhhh, sleeping at the bottom of the pan. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven until golden, about 40-45 minutes (you can use the clean-tester method here, though I always just eyeball it). Now—this is important—cool the cake in its skillet on a rack for exactly 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake, then place a large plate over the pan with one hand while your other hand is busy having an oven mitt on it and holding the skillet’s handle, and then use the toes of one foot to light a few votive candles prayingly while you invert the cake, holding skillet and plate tightly together and then removing the skillet with an optimistic flourish. Serve warm with—what else?—whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

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