Despite my protestations, it turns out this gingerbread-spiced molasses-heavy caramelized apple upside-down cake is perfect for the holiday-decked winter months whether I’m ready for them or not. It’s intensely flavored, dark and coppery and goes about as perfectly with some barely sweetened, softly whipped cream as I imagine it would with a dark beer or hard cider (as in, why did I not think of that sooner?).
The recipe itself has some cool origins, a woman named Karen Bates of the Philo Apple Farm in Northern California, which was taken over by her parents in the 80s after they’d fled the increasingly touristy Napa — a decade after opening one of the area’s first set-menu restaurants in a former French steam laundry, which they sold in 1994 to a relatively unknown chef named Thomas Keller (who still buys his apple from Philo).
Despite respecting all that, I still hacked it a bit, fearfully swapping out half the molasses for honey and tweaking the apple topping quite a bit after finding it aggressively overly-sweet the way it was printed. What I have ended up with is something that would seem absurd in August, or the last time I took note of the date, but suddenly fits in perfectly with holiday weeks, cooler weather and, you know, the bear suits that fast-forwarded you into them.
One year ago: Mustard-Roasted Potatoes, Walnut Tartlets and Cauliflower Gratin
Two years ago: Chile-Garlic Egg Noodles
Three years ago: Cinnamon Chocolate Sour Cream Coffee Cake, Wild Mushroom Pirogis and Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing pan
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
Pinch of salt
4 apples (about 1 3/4 pounds), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch wedges
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/3 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup honey
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Very softly whipped cream
Make the topping: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch cake pan. Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add brown sugar and simmer over moderate heat, stirring, four minutes, then swirl in salt. Remove from heat and pour into the bottom of your cake pan. Make circles of overlapping apple slices on top of the caramel. Chop any remaining slices and place them in the gaps.
Make the batter: Using a mixer, blend 1/2 cup butter and the sugar on medium-low speed. Increase the speed to high and cream until light and fluffy.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, molasses, honey and buttermilk. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Alternate mixing the flour and molasses mixtures into the butter mixture, adding the next once the last has been incorporated.
Pour the batter into the pan. Bake at least 45 to 50 minutes (thanks to commenter klp for reminding me this took a bit longer) or until a wooden tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn out onto a platter (one that will catch spills, unlike what you see in the pictures above).
Serve warm or cool with very softly whipped cream.