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My First Baking Challenge: Upside-Down Cake

As promised, I embarked this week on my first Great British Baking Challenge bake—an upside-down cake. As Sue described this signature challenge in the first episode of the 2012 season (See my chart here if you’re still confused as to when this season aired in the U.S.): “Your own personal spin on an absolute classic—the upside-down cake—a simple sponge topped with the fruit of your choice.” 

Of course, because it’s an upside-down cake, the fruit starts out at the bottom of the pan, with the cake (or sponge, as the British call it) baked on top. After it comes out of the oven, the cake is flipped out of the pan so the fruit ends up on top. The most common upside-down cake is of the pineapple variety, which has always been too sweet for my taste, so I’ve never actually made one. That definitely made this a challenge for me, but that’s why I started this blog in the first place, to try my hand at new bakes and perfect new skills. So let’s get started!

I was inspired by some of the fruits the bakers used in this episode and was reminded of a raw apple cake my mom used to make. I couldn’t find her original recipe, but I did find her recipe for buttermilk spice cake, which I remember being a moist sponge, mildly spiced and studded with raisins. I decided to adapt that recipe to use as my base, with a little bit of help from this article I found on The Kitchn website.

Mastering the Caramel Topping

Because I’m interested in learning new techniques, I decided to skip the step in The Kitchn recipe for making a sugar glaze and instead use the technique—demonstrated a lot on the Great British Baking Show—of making caramel by melting sugar on the stove until it turns a golden amber color, then stirring in the butter after taking it off the heat. I was a little nervous about this since so many people on the GBBS seem to have trouble with it. For example, it took Manisha eight attempts at making the caramel for her tarte tatin, in Episode 3 of this season, before she got it right! 

So for help, I turned to some recipes on the BBC website by a few contestants of the Great British Bake Off and other BBC baking shows. I found a recipe posted by Pippa Middlehurst of “Britain’s Best Home Cook” (Note to self: Another show to check out!) for a ginger and pear upside-down cake. She explains the caramel-making process pretty well: “Make a caramel by melting the sugar in small, deep saucepan over a low heat until golden brown, stirring only once most of the sugar has melted.”

I also noticed that her recipe calls for caster sugar for the caramel topping. Caster sugar is used often in British baking when the sugar in a recipe needs to dissolve quickly. If you can’t find caster sugar (or castor sugar) in your grocery store, look for superfine or baker’s sugar (Here’s what I found.), or try making your own. Since the problem people tend to have when making caramel is crystallization, I guess it makes sense to use a sugar with smaller crystals that dissolve, and therefore melt, faster.

So I followed Pippa’s directions and poured my superfine sugar into a small, deep saucepan and put it on low heat. I left it alone until it started bubbling. Since the sugar on top wasn’t melted, I swirled it around until most of the sugar was melted. By now it was a deep amber color. I took it off the heat and added the butter, stirring slowly, being careful not to splash myself with the hot liquid. Gradually, the butter and sugar melded into a thick golden sauce. I had successfully made caramel!

Hurdle No. 1 surmounted, it was time to get on with the rest of the bake. 

Preparing the Sponge

I decided to cut my apples into rings so they would look sort of like the pineapple rings in a pineapple upside-down cake. I cut them as thin as I could and brushed them lightly with lemon juice so they wouldn’t brown while I made the cake batter. After pouring the caramel into my prepared cake pan, I arranged the apple slices on top of that in two overlapping layers, adding pecan halves in some of the gaps for added interest. Then I set about to make the batter.

Usually when I follow a recipe I’m not that fussy about how long I mix the ingredients. Once they look well blended, I move on to the next step. The instructions in The Kitchn recipe suggest creaming the butter and sugar for a full five minutes, however, and mixing another minute after adding the eggs, so I decided to follow that advice. It did seem to make the butter mixture lighter and fluffier, so I plan to remember that in my future bakes.

I also used a tip I learned from my mother when she used raisins in her cakes—soak them in hot water for a few minutes before adding them to the batter. It keeps them from sticking together and plumps them up so they are softer and juicier when you bite into the cake.

Once the batter was mixed, I carefully added it to the cake pan, trying not to disturb the arranged apple slices. Then I popped the pan into my preheated oven and set the timer. Now all I could do was wait.

About 50 minutes later I pulled the cake out of the oven, gave it a minute or two for the juices to settle and carefully removed the sides of the pan. Then, placing my platter atop the cake, I swiftly and decisively flipped it over. After lifting the bottom of the pan off of the parchment paper I had lined it with, I was able to peel back the paper to reveal the dark brown, gooey caramel coating and the apple ring topping of my now right-side up upside-down cake!

How did it turn out? (Pardon the pun.) Since my husband and I were the only ones around to try it, you’ll have to take his words for it: “Really good!” But, seriously, attempting to be as objective as possible, it was well-baked with a moist crumb and not too dense. I could taste the apple, the caramel and the spices and, because they were mixed into the batter instead of on top with the apples, a raisin in every bite! The one thing Paul Hollywood might have criticized is that the caramel tasted slightly bitter, meaning I overcooked it. (Okay, maybe he’d say burnt!) Next time I won’t let the sugar get quite so dark before taking it off the heat.

Here’s the rating system I’ve developed for judging this and all my future bakes, both on the difficulty of the challenge itself (based on the techniques required) and on my own results (based on appearance, flavor and overall execution). Top score in each category is 5 cakes:

Upside-Down Apple Spice Cake with Raisins and Pecans


Topping Ingredients

  • 3 T. butter
  • ½ c. superfine sugar
  • 2 large baking apples
  • Lemon juice
  • Pecan halves

Sponge Ingredients

  • 1½ c. flour
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • ¼ t. salt
  • ½ t. cinnamon
  • ½ t. cloves
  • ½ c. butter
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c. milk
  • ½ c. raisins

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare 9” springform pan by cutting a circle of parchment paper about ¾” larger than the bottom of the pan. Spray sides of pan with nonstick cooking spray. Insert parchment circle into pan, pressing the excess against the sides of the pan. Peel, core and slice the apples into thin rings. Brush lightly with lemon juice and lay on paper towels to absorb excess moisture.
  2. Put the superfine sugar into a deep saucepan over low heat, but do not stir. Once it starts melting, swirl the pan around until most of the sugar is melted. Then stir with a long-handled wooden spoon until smooth and golden brown. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring until incorporated. (CAUTION: Melted sugar is extremely hot. Handle very carefully to avoid splashing or bubbling over.) Pour into bottom of prepared pan. Arrange apple slices and pecans on top of caramel.
  3. To make the sponge: Sift flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and cloves together and set aside. Cream butter and sugar together for 5 minutes. Add eggs and beat 1 more minute. While creaming butter and sugar, soak the raisins in hot water. Alternately add one-third of the milk and one-third of the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, mixing in between each addition. Drain raisins and lightly dry with paper towels, then gently fold into batter.
  4. Carefully dollop batter on top of fruit and smooth with spatula. Place cake pan on top of baking sheet and put into oven. Bake 40-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Transfer pan to cooling rack and let rest for 1 minute so the fruit stops bubbling. Remove sides of pan and then flip cake onto a plate. Carefully remove bottom of pan and parchment paper. Replace any pieces that have dislodged.

If you make this recipe, or if you plan to try your own take on the Upside-Down Cake Signature Challenge, I hope you’ll share your comments below. (I don’t know if you can insert photos or not, but I’d love to see them!)

Next Week: Rum Babas

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