This is the cake in which I did everything wrong.
1. It was impromptu, on a week that I have been trying to embrace salads, vegetables and water, or all those things I got too little of on Alex and Deb’s Central European Vacation. But I’m a sucker for any and all upside-down cakes, and this one sounded so good, my resolve was immediately weakened.
2. Cherries are not in season around here, not even close.
3. I said if I couldn’t find frozen cherries, I’d take it as a sign and skip it, but then Alex went to the store for me and he’s so good, so eager to get everything on the list that he bought fresh ones that cost so much money, I cannot discuss it in mixed company. But it was still really sweet of him.
4. I do not own a cherry pitter. Oh, I have looked at them, marveled at an extra-cute one at Williams-Sonoma last summer, but that time, like all of the times before it, I determined such a purchase fussy and of little use. Halving and pitting cherries took forever, a forever I would have happily swapped for a $10 limited-use gadget.
5. I do not own a cast-iron or oven-proof skillet that is 10 or 11 inches, though this, too, I have often discussed buying one but the thought of lugging it home always talks me out of it.
6. I had worked until 7 p.m. on Tuesday, swam a mile at the gym, got home after 9 p.m. and still determined that I would have time to bake this cake, cherry pitting included. I hate rushing through recipes; something always goes horribly wrong and I forget an egg or the sugar and swear I’ll never rush again. Yet this is exactly what I did.
7. It turned out I was out of brown sugar, save one rock of a chunk I was completely unable to soften. So what then? People, I grated it, that’s what I did.
8. I decided that since I didn’t have the right size oven-proof skillet and lacked a 10-inch cake pan that wasn’t an always-leaky springform, I would use this as my perfect excuse to finally use my Maryann cake pan. But here’s the thing with Ms. Mary, the fruit/frosting/curd/cream that you put on top? Yeah, it’s supposed to go on top of a baked, not unbaked cake. I realized this after I’d already dumped the cherries in, and decided to just run with it. I mean, once you’ve already grated brown sugar, I think it’s safe to say that you’re probably not going to get hung up on a cake pan that pushes all of the out-of-season cherries into an unattractive channel.
And guess what? Despite my every effort to ruin this cake, it is still killer good. The cake is light and fluffy; the cornmeal is minimal enough to be interesting, not aggravating; the cherries–even out-of-season ones in average shape–are amazing, their combination with brown sugar, balsamic and butter is a stroke of genius. I wouldn’t change a thing, not one single step. Well, ahem, except those eight above. Oh, and two more for good measure and a nice even number:
9. Intent on getting at least one pretty picture of an ugly cake, I flipped it out onto my Martha Stewart Collection 12-inch white cake stand, despite being fully aware a) that the cake would be very sticky, and b) that I wanted to be able to pack it up and bring it to Jocelyn’s the next day. Trying to remove the still-warm cake 45 minutes later, the ended up in eight pieces, at least two of them still stuck to the plate, soaking in the sink.
10. As if I couldn’t have possibly done one more thing that evidenced my compromised logic that evening, I succumbed to a slice of it at 12:00 a.m. And do you know what happened? I was so hopped up on sugar, I couldn’t get to sleep until after 1 a.m. But it was totally worth it.
Well, actually: I woke up the next morning with a sore throat and stuffy nose, and ended up missing the barbecue, anyway! And now we’re swimming in quickly-depleting way-too-delicious Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake. Halp! [P.S. Still worth it.]
Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake
From Bon Appetit, June 2008
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3 cups whole pitted fresh Bing cherries or other dark sweet cherries (about 21 ounces whole unpitted cherries)
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal (preferably stone-ground medium grind)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, separated
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Combine 1/4 cup butter with brown sugar and vinegar in 10- to 11-inch ovenproof skillet with 2-inch-high sides. Stir over medium heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Increase heat to high; add cherries and bring to boil. Remove from heat.
Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup butter in large bowl. Add sugar; beat until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with milk in 2 additions each, beating just until blended and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in another medium bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until whites are stiff but not dry. Using rubber spatula, fold 1/4 of whites into batter to lighten slightly. Fold in remaining whites in 3 additions (batter will be thick). Spoon batter over cherries in skillet, then spread evenly with offset spatula to cover cherries.
Bake cake until top is golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool in skillet on rack 5 minutes. Run spatula around edges of cake to loosen. Place large serving platter upside down atop skillet. Using pot holders or oven mitts, firmly hold platter and skillet together and invert. Leave skillet atop cake 5 minutes. Remove skillet. If necessary, rearrange any cherries that may have become dislodged. Let cake cool at least 45 minutes. Cut cake into wedges and serve slightly warm or at room temperature.