Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

Posted November 24, 2008
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You can’t tell that a bunch of cranberries stuck to the pan, because instead of flinging myself tragically to the ground, I simply scraped them out and spackled them back onto the cake.

I picture Ben playing with cranberries still, years from now, while his own children lie on the floor nearby, waiting patiently for a turn.

Birdy loves to zest the oranges. If you don’t have a microplane grater, then find it online, print out the page, and leave it lying around with a little hint-bearing Post-it on it ("If only!" or "Gosh, don’t I wish?") in case anybody is thinking of buying you a holiday gift.

Cranberries? What cranberries?

I am going to admit here, in a photo caption that you might not even read, that this particular cake was less good than usual-a little heavy and dry. Overbaked? Overmixed? Butter and sugar not fluffy enough? I’m not sure.

Ben’s lovely friend Ava is a devoted eater of this cake, despite her occasional mature suggestion that this or that dessert is "too sweet"-a comment that baffles my own children, who look at her like she’s just announced that she hates goody bags.

If I actually had the picture I really wanted to post here, you would squint and squint at it, and say, what is that? A plus-sign made out of sponge cake? And the answer would be yes. Or rather no. Or sort of. I grew up in a household that used the occasion of my mother's baking of a square pineapple upside-down cake to confirm various theories of hedonism, geometry, greed, and a kind of Darwinian relationship to crusted brown sugar. Out the cake would come, glistening brown and fragrantly buttery, and at first everyone would get a regular piece. Or I should say a regular corner piece-because every one of us craved one of those intensely caramelized corners that had gone richly dark and molar-tuggingly sticky in the oven. My brother and I also relished the canned pineapple rings, although our father-as he will tell you himself, whether or not you ask-ate them only as a kind of penance while kneeling at the Altar of the Brown Corners.

And then later, well, later maybe we were kicking around in the kitchen before bed, chatting about this and that, and a bit of Saran Wrap would be peeled off of what was now a beautiful brown, pineapple-studded cross of cake, a knife would appear, and before you knew it, the crisp edges had been trimmed here and there, and those second-best bits had been shoved into guilty, smiling mouths. And the next part-well, it's hard to explain, because, not to make myself sound like a total innocent here, but I never actually saw the next part, because it happened in the absolute secret of darkest night. All I know is that by the next morning, the entire top of the cake would have been skimmed entirely off, leaving a nude, cornerless, edgeless Saran-wrapped archaeological exhibit of a certain person's criminal relationship to brown sugar. And all I can say is that a) my mother never would have done such a thing, and b) my brother and I were sleeping.

The moral of the story: bake your upside down cake in a round skillet. And don't invite my father over.

Now this particular cake, as you have noticed by its title and appearance, is made with cranberries, but I have baked it with many other fruits ranging from the classic pineapple to the bracingly delicious rhubarb; come spring, I am even somewhat famous for the latter version. But cranberries are just so gorgeous in their ruby way, and they're so delightfully seasonal in the bright cold of November. Although, please note that I am not recommending that you make this for Thanksgiving, because to tamper with anybody's pie tradition is like erecting a wailing wall around your grateful table, and believe me-it's just not worth it. But it's a nice little cake to make this week, when you've picked up an extra bag of cranberries and are feeling festive.

A few notes on children. A sinkful of water, with a bag of cranberries dumped in? Oh, it's good. Do this, even if you're not making the cake. It's worth the cost of the berries just to watch your kids' ecstatic relationship to those tiny bobbing orbs. Give them a small sieve, spoons, funnels, whatever-and then ask them to please do you a big favor and wash the berries for you. Then run yourself a bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read the Boden catalogue cover to cover, because the kids will be happy for an hour. Then put the Boden catalogue straight into the recycling, because why torture yourself, and go bake a cake.

Happy Thanksgiving! I am grateful to be here with you still after all of this time. Thank you.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake
active time: 25 minutes; total time: a little over an hour

For topping
    1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)
    3/4 cup plus packed light brown sugar
    1 12-ounce bag cranberries (if using frozen, don't thaw them first)

For cake
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
    1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
    2/3 cup granulated sugar
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 teaspoon grated orange zest (from 1 large orange)
    2 eggs
    1/2 cup buttermilk
    1/4 cup milk

Heat the oven to 350. Now begin with the topping. I prepare and bake this cake in a very well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet; if you're going to be using a cake pan, then you will need to do the butter and brown sugar part in the oven, and you may want to line the pan with parchment first, but I'm not entirely sure. For skillet-users: melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Spread the mixture out as best you can, and leave it to cool while you prepare the cake batter.

Sift (or, hello lazy friend of mine, whisk) together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Meanwhile, in an electric mixer, you are beating together the butter and sugar until they are very fluffy-stopping to scrape down the bowl if there's a dead spot down there, below the beater, like there is with mine. Add the vanilla, the orange zest, and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. With the mixer on low speed add the flour alternately with the buttermilk and milk, which you've sensibly mixed together in the measuring cup. Do you know how to do this alternating thing? A third of the flour goes in, you mix it until it just disappears, then add half the milk and mix briefly, then more flour, etc, ending with flour (three lots of flour, two lots of milk, alternate side of the street parking Wednesdays and Fridays). Beat until just combined, or risk overbeating and baking something with the delicate texture of an anvil.  

Now pour your immaculately clean berries (I rub them dry in a clean dish towel) into the prepared pan, shake to even them out, and spoon the batter over them in large blobs which you will smooth and spread together very gently with a spatula so as not to disturb the berries which are, shhhh, already asleep at the bottom of the pan. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven until quite brown and done-looking, about 40-45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Now-this is important-cool the cake in its skillet on a rack for exactly 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake, then place a large plate over the pan with one hand while your other hand is busy having an oven mitt on it and holding the skillet's handle, and then use the toes of one foot to light a few votive candles prayingly while you invert the cake, holding skillet and plate tightly together and then removing the skillet with an optimistic flourish. Serve warm with-what else?-whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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