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Tips for making the perfect upside-down cake

Tart rhubarb balances the sweetness of caramel in

Tart rhubarb balances the sweetness of caramel in this seasonal upside-down cake. (May 20, 2013) Credit: Lauren Chattman

If you scare easily, you probably avoid upside-down cakes. I don't mean you refuse to eat the sticky dessert often decorated with canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries that is the hallmark of mid-20th-century convenience cuisine. I mean that you won't bake an upside-down cake because you are afraid that when you flip it onto a platter, you will leave half of it in the pan.

Ideally, an upside-down cake is simple and beautiful. Instead of spending time frosting a cake after it is baked, you just sprinkle fruit and sugar on the bottom of a cake pan, spread the batter on top, bake, then invert the warm cake onto a platter shortly after it comes out of the oven. In addition to adding fruit flavor and gooey sweetness, the caramelized fruit becomes a glistening decoration.

The problem, of course, is that as the sugar melts and the fruit softens, the mixture can cling stubbornly to the bottom of the pan. Is there anything worse than working hard to bake a showstopping cake, only to destroy it as you attempt to serve it? If this possibility is preventing you from trying an upside-down cake, here are some tips for success to help you get over your reluctance:

1. Choose the right pan. You can grease and flour a cake pan all you want, but for extra insurance, make sure your pan already has a nonstick finish. I like the Goldtouch pans sold at Williams-Sonoma. Even when I've forgotten the nonstick cooking spray (that does happen every once in a while), my cakes still release from these pans with no problem. A springform pan might seem like a good idea because of its removable sides but actually isn't. No matter how good the seal between the bottom and sides of the pan, some of the boiling caramel is sure to escape and drip onto the bottom of your oven, where it will smoke and burn.

2. Use parchment paper. Another bit of insurance: Line the pan with a circle of parchment paper. No matter how sticky your fruit gets, it won't be able to bond with the pan if a parchment circle is sandwiched between them.

3. Wait a little bit, but not too long. If you try to invert the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, you are asking for trouble. At this point, it's not fully set and is likely to fall into pieces. But if you wait too long, the fruit might give you trouble. After 10 minutes out of the oven, the cake will have solidified enough to be inverted safely, and the fruit will still be warm and loose enough to fall out of the pan easily.

4. Learn how to invert. First, loosen the cake from the sides of the pan by running a sharp paring knife around the edges. Choose a platter that's at least 11/2 times larger in diameter than your pan. Excess caramel might run off the edges of a too-small platter. Place the platter on top of the cake, grasp the pan bottom and platter bottom with both hands (use a kitchen towel or oven mitts if the pan is still hot) and quickly flip the pan and platter so the pan is now on the top and the platter on the bottom. Gently put the two down on the countertop to rest for five minutes. Gravity will help release the cake from the pan. Resist the urge to shake or tap the pan. If you do, you might cause the cake to fall apart.


Instead of pineapple in my upside-down cakes, I prefer fruit that is on the tart side, such as rhubarb, to balance the extreme sweetness of melted sugar. Sour cherries are good. So are berries and plums. It's early for local fruit, so I picked up a few stalks of rhubarb at the farmers market to use in my cake.

To make sure mine was as tasty as the fruit topping and sturdy enough to support it, I added some yellow cornmeal and a little lemon zest.

1 cup packed light brown sugar, divided

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

2 cups rhubarb, tough strings removed, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour

1/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/2 cup sour cream

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line with a circle of parchment paper and spray parchment.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup brown sugar and ground ginger. Sprinkle evenly over bottom of parchment-lined pan. Sprinkle rhubarb pieces over sugar mixture.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking soda, salt.

4. Combine butter and remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar in a large bowl and cream together with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla and lemon zest and beat until combined well. Beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture, alternating with 1/2 of the sour cream, and ending with the flour mixture, scraping down sides of the bowl after each addition.

5. Spoon cake batter over rhubarb and smooth with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes, invert onto a rimmed serving platter and let stand 5 minutes. Carefully lift the pan from the cake and peel away the parchment if it is sticking to the cake. If any fruit has stuck to the parchment paper, place it back on the cake. Let cool an additional 15 minutes and serve warm, or let cool to room temperature.

Makes 8 servings.

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