Upside Down Cake Recipes That Make Summer Baking a Breeze

With glossy yellow rings bull’s-eyed by neon red cherries, pineapple upside-down cake is a beloved American dessert: homey, nostalgic, boldly geometric. Ever since the recipe was popularized in the 1920s, it’s become so entrenched in our confectionary consciousness that an upside-down cake made with anything else seems like a mere afterthought.

But other fruit — juicy summer peaches, apricots, plums and nectarines; mounds of purple berries; velvety bananas — can make upside-down cakes as good or even better than the usual pineapple. And they’re exactly the thing to bake right now, especially if you’re wondering what to do with that surfeit of stone fruits and berries leaking sticky nectar all over your kitchen island.

Upside-down cakes don’t require the pristine fruit you’d want for a shortcake or tart. No matter how wrinkled your peaches or sagging your blueberries, once they’ve been caramelized and baked under batter, they’ll become syrupy and colorful, a shimmering crown without further need of embellishment.

Just as essential as an upside-down cake’s ability to put languishing fruit to use is its ease. The batter is a cinch to whisk up in one bowl, making it faster and easier than a pie or galette crust. Then you can bake the cake in the same skillet you used for the fruit — perfect for rented houses where kitchen equipment is sparse, the parchment paper nonexistent.

To bake one would be to follow in the footsteps of a long line of pastry cooks, who have inverted fruity desserts for centuries before sunny rings of pineapple were stacked in cans.

The most famous example, the veritable queen of all topsy-turvy desserts, is the French tarte Tatin. Created in the 19th century by the sisters Stephanie and Caroline Tatin at their Loire Valley hotel, it was based on an even older French tradition of apple tartes renversées. Made from apples caramelized in sugar, then baked beneath a pastry crust, both these confections are similar to an entire genre of upside-down apple pancakes, including the crepelike sanciaux (also from France), German apple pancakes called apfelpfannkuchen and colonial American apple tansey, all of which consist of a simple pancake batter covering the fruit, rather than a crust.

In the 18th- and 19th-century United States, cakes were often cooked in skillets over hot coals, which made them accessible to Americans without ovens. Simmering fruit in a syrup or in butter in the skillet before adding the batter was one very common practice. Whether the cake was eventually flipped for serving or offered directly from the pan, the concept of caramelized fruit and cake was the same (though far prettier when turned onto a serving platter).

One of the earliest recipes called “upside-down cake” was published in 1923 in the now-defunct Syracuse Herald. Prunes were the fruit in question, arranged over brown sugar and butter, and speckled with walnuts. Other versions, using apricots and pitted sour cherries, were also fashionable in the early 20th century.

Pineapple became the go-to in 1926 when Dole sponsored a recipe contest. There were 60,000 entries; 2,500 were for some version of pineapple upside-down cake.

Pineapple has remained on the top of the upside-down heap ever since. In my twist on the classic, I nixed the cherries, substituted fresh pineapple for canned and added pecans for texture. (I also used nuts in my banana variation, which has bananas Foster-like vibes, but with the happy bonus of some cake and a crunch.)

Although the recipe for upside-down cake is straightforward, there are some best practices for the most tender crumb and a fruit topping that’s just sweet enough without being all cloying.

The first is to caramelize the sugar before adding the fruit. Many vintage recipes skip this step in favor of simplicity, instead just melting the butter, then sprinkling the sugar on top. While this works, it results in a neutral sweetness with a muted caramel character.

Deeply caramelizing the sugar before adding the fruit tempers it, bringing out a mild bitterness and adding layers of nutty complexity, and it takes only a few minutes. Don’t worry if the sugar clumps and seizes, it will melt again when you bake the cake, turning silky-smooth.

Another tip is to bake the cake longer than you would a regular butter cake. This is because of the moisture in the fruit, particularly stone fruit and berries, which have high water contents that can make the crumb soggy. The cake surface should be well browned all over, with dark edges that yield a slight crunch. A toothpick inserted in the middle should emerge without any crumbs.

Always let your cake rest for about 10 to 15 minutes before inverting it onto a platter to let both fruit and caramel firm up a little. But don’t let it go longer than that, or the caramel may cool and glue the fruit to the pan. Of course, you can always pry it out and put it back on top of the cake. Then, slice, serve and get ready to fall head over heels for upside-down cake.

Recipes: Pineapple Upside-Down Cake With Pecans | Peach Upside-Down Cake | Berry Upside-Down Cake | Banana Upside-Down Cake

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