Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake

Even this "perfect" one seems to have some displaced apples.

I just pitched a piece to a women’s magazine about my schizophrenic kale-Cheezits relationship to food and eating. Jolly Ranchers and buckwheat groats; bar-room chicken wings and raw kohlrabi. “Interesting!” the editor wrote back. “But what’s the take-away going to be? We’re not getting such a clear sense of it.” That is a good and important question! What is the take-away going to be?

Maybe it’s this: the fact of our privilege means we have a fridge full of food, which is such a profound luxury. 

I want us to nurture our healthy bodies and to invest in organic practices, in local and sustainable harvests, in a healthier planet with healthier creatures on it. But I also want to not fret over every mouthful, which can feel kind of narcissistic given that so many people are frankly hungry. Also, I’m raising a girl. I really don’t want her to overthink every bite of food, if you know what I mean. I wish for some easiness in her about eating—a sense that, as long as her basic diet is healthy and sound, it’s fine to slurp up a blue raspberry Slurpee every now and again. (Even if she notices, and she does, that it makes her feel kind of cruddy.)
Corn Nut butt
I’m just thinking aloud, by the way. And this may all just be specious justification of the fact that, even though I’ve been generally leaning away from sugar and white flour, I’m posting this cake today. Because it’s apple season, and because I wanted there to be something nice when the kids got home from school.

The cake is so sticky-salty-buttery good that everyone will love it. Even if right after you take it out of the oven your camera strap catches on the corner of the kitchen island such that the camera slingshots out of your hands onto the tile floor where its lens cap flies off with a heart-stopping clatter and by the time you finish Googling "I dropped my camera and it seems alright but is it?" the topping has cooled and stuck, and you have to scrape the entire thing back onto the cake in a messy heap. Even then.

It will still taste delicious! Even if all the dumb apples and dumb cooled caramel had to be spackled onto it and photographed with a not-broken dropped camera that is maybe taking blurry pictures.
Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake
Serves 6 to 8
Active time: 35 minutes; total time 1 hour

This cake is like the autumn cousin of the more familiar pineapple version. It is gooey and gorgeous--and a fantastic way to use some of those apples you might be getting in large quantities right about now. It’s based on the French tarte tatin, so butter, yes, caramel, yes, salt, yes, but NO CINNAMON. If you want to add cinnamon though, you totally should. Because life is short.

Please note: if you need to be sure the cake is going to come out perfect, then butter the skillet and line the bottom with a circle of parchment before you begin melting the butter and caramelizing the apples.

For caramelized apples
2 crisp apples (or 3 if they’re small), peeled
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter (I use salted!)

For cake batter
1 1/2 cups flour (I use—can you guess?—half spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1/2 cup sour cream

Heat the oven to 350.

Core the apples, then quarter them and slice each quarter into thirds. Put the apple slices and sugar in a large bowl and toss to coat the slices with sugar.

Melt the butter in a10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until foaming. Reduce the heat to low and arrange the apples, cut-sides down in the skillet. I do mine in an attractive spiral! Sprinkle any leftover sugar around the apples, and cook over moderately low heat until the sugar begins to caramelize, about 15 minutes. (At first it may look like the sugar is caramelizing right away, but that is likely still the butter toasting. Wait a sec and see.) Remove the skillet from the heat while you make the batter.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg and beat well. Add the flour mixture and sour cream alternately in 3 batches of flour and 2 of sour cream, mixing at low speed after each addition until just combined.

Spoon the (very stiff) batter over the apples in the skillet, blooping out all the batter in stiff little globs and using a butter knife after to spread it as evenly as you can without disturbing the apples; this is sort of stressful and unsatisfying, and the batter will not cover the tops of all the apples. Bake in the middle of the oven until the cake is golden brown and feels firm when you press it, around 25 minutes.

Run a thin knife around edge of the cake and invert a plate over the skillet. Invert the cake onto the plate, keeping the plate and skillet firmly pressed together, then replace any (or all) fruit stuck to the bottom of the skillet if necessary.

Serve cake warm or at room temperature.



  1. You are so timely! Thanks for solving the "what dessert to bring for the soccer potluck" question ♡

  2. Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

  3. I hope the editor accepts that article because it needs to be written! To me, the take-away is that we've become so obsessed with eating right that we've forgotten what it means to eat well. We need to better understand that healthy eating and good eating are not necessarily the same thing. Good eating doesn't just nourish our bodies but also brings people together (which can be hard when we're all so focused on our own special diet that we can't actually share food). And in our zeal to scrutinize every morsel that passes our kids' lips we lose sight of the simple gratitude for the fact that we can feed our kids whenever they are hungry. That gratitude is called for whether we're feeding them cheddar goldfish or a homemade cupcake or a perfect Macoun apple. (I feel a little bit strongly about this topic. Can you tell? Please write it!)

  4. Angela8:02 AM

    Yes!!! Healthy eating gets a bit obsessive at times, which is of course not to say that we shouldn't do it _mostly_ ;) . But Catherine, I'm glad you say that about raising a daughter. It's been an issue for me this summer, since my mother in law said of my bonny 7-year-old daughter, in her hearing: "that child is fat!". Actually she is a girl who loves to eat, tomatoes and carrots every bit as much as chocolate or chips, and she isn't pudgy at all, just not skinny (which, one could argue, her grandmother is). I really hope my daughter has forgotten that comment, because it would be awful if she dwelled on it. She knows what is good to eat often and what should be a treat, but that nearly everything is ok now and then... though McDonald's nuggets make us all feel sluggish and grumpy. Eating should not be a source of guilt! We are so lucky to have plenty, and have choices!
    Hope the article gets in!

    1. Anonymous1:31 PM

      I so hear you about not wanting to make a daughter self-conscious about everything she eats, but now I find myself with a dilemma: my daughter would eat junk food all day long if I'd let her. It's like she fiends for it in ways that my other 2 kids don't. It's truly not a concern about weight gain that disturbs me greatly about this (I figure her weight will be what it will be, dictated mostly by her gene pool anyhow, and I'd love her equally no mater what she looked like in any case!) It's that I look at all the artificial crap that goes into the processed food that she loves, and truly worry that she is poisoning her body just at an age where she's growing the fastest (she's 12). I worry that she's setting herself up for a lifetime of preventable illnesses, but worry equally that my nagging her to choose healthier options is going to backfire, too. HELP please! I've tried stocking up on lots of produce and other "whole foods," and preparing them as snacks when she gets home, I make homemade dinners most nights and pack lunches every day, I've tried the "everything in moderation" philosophy, I've spoken with her (OK, probably a lecture) about fueling her body with what it needs to perform at its best. I don't wish to dictate every bite she puts in her mouth (truly I don't) or make this into a giant power struggle. I'm guessing no one on here is a nutrition or parenting "expert," per se, but I love your writing and your parenting style with your own kids, and think your readers have great insight, as well. would love to know what any of you might suggest! Or should I just lighten up and trust her to figure it out??

    2. Anonymous1:42 PM

      By the way, Angela, sorry to hijack your post. I initially tried to post my comment as its own independent comment, but couldn't get the site to cooperate with me!

  5. I so agree with Ellen and Angela's comments ^^. Some much-needed sanity around food and eating in this country would be totally welcome. And I hear what you're saying especially about raising a girl in this society.

    As for this cake, yummy. I can't wait to make it!

  6. Anonymous2:50 PM

    Might be easier to pitch "camera trebuchet" to your editor. I hear Mythbusters is still going strong. Kudos on the cake and on spackling it back together. Life is full of spackle moments, and when we learn that we can cobble together life's little stuff-ups with a bit of spit and polish to deliver the goods, we have learned a tasty life lesson indeed. As my esteemed brother once said to me when I was crying over spilt milk (actually a cracked chocolate cake...) "It's all the same when it's in your guts" ...yeah...cheers bro!

  7. Anonymous10:42 PM

    Long time reader - first time poster - can I cook the apples in a different pan and then transfer to bake-safe dish. I don't have one that can be used on both stovetop and oven!

    Thank you - I love your column and recipes!

    1. I think that should work totally fine! Then again, I'm not like a model baker of this particular cake. Please report back!

  8. Anonymous3:35 PM

    I have been meaning to write in to say that I have made the plum cake recipe in a cast-iron skillet with great success. I have not had good luck, though, with the spelt-added version. I went by looks instead of toothpick-testing, and the cake seemed damp and undercooked. Should I bake a little longer when adding the spelt? I have substituted KA white whole wheat in lots of recipes without noticing a problem, but the spelt was new to me. Thanks!

    1. Hm. I haven't had that experience but I would say, then: yes. I think baking a little longer might help! I hope I haven't led you astray.

  9. Oh yes, this is the perfect thing to make right now. What is that editor of this women's magazine thinking?? I would read an article of you transcribing the obituaries. I think most people have some degree of this schizo relationship with food. Maybe they just don't admit it? Like the women I hear loudly discussing their dietary habits following a strength training class at my local rec center. They stand around in their $90 Athleta pants, looking like muscle-y Barbie dolls, detailing to whomever cares to listen their boring, first-world, privileged diets. "Oh you know, I just have some plain non fat Greek yogurt with fresh fruit as a treat!!!" I bet you they go home and snarf bags of Bugles. Do they make Bugles still? Deprivation regarding food is like a competitive sport where I live. It is depressing. So, push for that article! In the mean time, I just have to make this cake. Which I will eat after that strength training class.

    1. plazamom6:20 PM

      I love this comment and agree completely! Couldn't let the great comment that we "would read an article of you transcribing the obituaries" without adding a "me too!" to it. And definitely agree with all of the comments so far about a healthy approach to eating -- which absolutely includes jolly ranchers and kale -- vs. scrutiny of every bite, which is definitely a first world privilege.

  10. I feel moved to comment here on the connection between good eating and girls. Here's to not overthinking!!! As the parent of a high school senior girl, I've seen a number of girls take nutritional eating to new heights per their family culture and mother anxiety. In fact, I learned last week that eating that avoids certain foods (sugar, fat, etc.) to an extreme has just been classified as an eating disorder. One girl I know has had to take a gap year from college to get healthy and return to a normal weight. It's a real problem. I hope you choose to write about it, Catherine. I love your essays.

  11. My 8 year old daughter and I just made this. This is very delicious and kid friendly, she did most of the work except for the hot parts. Thank you!

  12. alison12:13 AM

    Hate to comment here on your blog but thought you would want to know. I LOVE chop chop and have subscribed for a couple of years BUT your distribution doesn't work. I never get a magazine unless I remember to call as it is just never sent automatically. I bought a subscription for a friend and would do more but I have to call quarterly for them too as they are also not receiving it. Don't mean to be complain-y but I think that this great mag would be even better if we could actually read our subscription in the season it was intended for.

    1. Hi Alison, I'm so sorry to hear that you aren't getting your ChopChops without having to call each time. Can you send your name, address, email and phone number to info@chopchopmag.org and we'll investigate. Thanks for hanging in there! Sally Sampson, ChopChop Founder

  13. Allyson2:23 AM

    I have a couple of questions/comments unrelated to this (amazing-looking) cake. I just binge-read the entire four years of your journal over at Baby Center. (I've been "with" you since day one, and I actually do this every year or so. Somehow rereading your journal helps me relive those years with my babies, who are now 13 and 11. Is that weird?)
    So I need to ask: all your lovely blog entries from Wondertime? They are no longer online, and I was wondering if you were allowed and/or willing to make them available here. Also your wonderful stuff from Family Fun that has disappeared. I am very grateful that you've re-posted your recipes here, but I crave your writing as much as I crave your food.
    Now I'm thinking I should print out the million pages from Baby Center in case they disappear, too, because I would be completely heartbroken to lose all those entries, familiar and comforting old friends that they are.
    I'm coming off of a 3-day migraine, and haven't slept since Wednesday (it's 2:20 a.m. Saturday now), so please forgive my incoherence.

  14. Anonymous9:26 PM

    Having raised three daughters, with none of them having food/eating issues, thank God, your asking for in-put , I was wondering where /how does your 12year old daughter get access to "junk food"? During most of their childhood I was their single divorced parent, working full-time to support them (while also going to night Law School for seven years to get a J.D. Degree). That was partly a hope that it would enable me to earn more money, for without child support and my employment our only source of income, we had a very difficult time making ends meet, to secure a roof over our heads and enough food on the table. Unfortunately, it took so long, combining work and school, that only my youngest daughter benefitted directly from my degree. Some of the side effects of this struggle are that none of my daughters was ever a picky eater. We were all so aware how lucky we were to have enough food. We worked together, preparing food on the week-end, making double batches and roasting meats nd veggies, so there was always food in the fridge, from which we would make yummy meals throughout the week. The girls each learned to cook and bake. As for "junk food", we didn't have any at home. The most we ever indulged was to get French fries at Mc Donald's on the way home from day- care. That was so long ago, before "organic" was a common word. We were into survival! So, I feel that many of these food problems are 1% first world issues, and in a way we were lucky, I guess, to be so poor. We had enough to eat, but just barely!

    1. Anonymous8:04 AM

      Hi, and thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm the original "Anonymous" with the 12 year-old. I nearly wrote something about where she gets the junk food in my original question, but it was already getting rather wordy! Admittedly, she finds some of it here at our house. I can't claim to have a completely Whole Foods-type kitchen, although we always have fresh fruit/veg, yogurt, nuts, etc. on hand for snacks. But I'll admit I do buy "convenience" items to throw in the kids' lunches (mostly because I'm at a loss for what to use as "fillers" once I get past my limited genius for sandwich, nuts, and fruit ideas). I saw that food was becoming an issue, though, so I did move away from what I saw as total garbage like "fruit snacks" and "pudding" cups to things like crackers, applesauce, and granola bars. Now she would eat a steady diet of nothing but those if I let her! Also, a large portion of what she eats is what she finds outside our house, and that is a lot of where I feel we have a big uphill battle (not just us as a family, but as a culture). One of the downsides of our 1st world living is that cheap/highly processed food is EVERYWHERE for our kids. The school teachers use candy as motivators. The school cafeteria sells "chocolate milk" (first ingredient: sugar) and ice cream. The school store sells candy. And her friends' pantries are stuffed (it would seem) with every item that's marketed so heavily toward kids. She comes home with wrappers in her pockets after spending time with friends. And she's then (not surprisingly) not hungry for the dinners I've prepared. So, there it is. I understand that I'm probably overthinking it, and probably neurotic in my doing so. I've always been active/athletic and conscious of what I eat (I volunteered as a peer nutrition advisor back in college, over 25 years ago!) So, I'd like to model a good example without harping on it constantly. Balance... So hard to find! :) Thanks for your input!

  15. Anonymous9:44 PM

    Sorry, I mixed up your post with the comment by Anonymous asking for advice about how to manage most positively with her junk-food-loving daughter. Maybe I should proceed with extra care before zipping into commenting at the end of a long, long day? The question of how to teach our kiddos how to make healthy choices for the rest of their lives is a truly important one--we can help each other by relating our experiences. None of us are experts. Instinct informed my best parenting . Mostly I tried to provide healthy food, trying to have a generous mount of fruit in season for snacks, not commenting about how many apples each could have. Just make healthy food available to enjoy without attitude or guilt or boring lecture. Good food is one of life's greatest pleasures.

    1. Anonymous8:07 AM

      All such good ideas... thank you from one Anonymous poster (I'm the mom of the 12 y.o.) to another! :) Thanks for your response!

  16. Anonymous2:53 PM

    Various anonymous posters who are trying to keep the judgment/pressure out of the way we teach our children about food might want to check out the Feeding Doctor and the Fat Nutritionist blogs. They're informed by Health At Every Size principles, so they may not speak to you, but they might.

  17. Anonymous3:26 AM

    Thanks got this tip--I checked those websites and they're so interesting. I plan to learn more!

  18. I think that should work totally fine! Then again, I'm not like a model baker of this particular cake. Please report back!