The Cranberry Upside-Down Cake you won't want to miss

It was a cold Thanksgiving night, and snow was on the ground in an uncharacteristically peaceful turn of meteorological events for the area. There was a family huddled together around a table in a small, cozy, recently renovated home that was once an even smaller school house. Food overflowed from the platters on the countertop-buffet, and conversation filtered out across the basket of rolls and plates strewn with leftover food from people's eyes, which were more ambitious than their stomachs. The fire had died down from the other room but the closeness of the family and acquaintances left little to be desired. Then, the conversation died down, too, slowly, and the host and hostess began preparing the last and final course of the evening: dessert. The sweet potato casseroles, roasted turkey, glazed carrots and sliced ham were replaced by a decadent chocolate cake with homemade chocolate fudge sauce, a pecan cheesecake, the obligatory pumpkin pie. And then I stood up from my place at the table, walked into the kitchen, and brought out my own contribution to the Thanksgiving meal: a modestly tasteful cranberry upside down cake, garnished with clusters of fresh cranberries. A ripple of questions took over the lingering conversations at the table asking what this latest addition to the dessert buffet was. "A cranberry upside-down cake," I said - I'll admit, with a little pride, and began slicing it into small enough portions to allow people to make a sample platter of all of the delicious foods that evening. And that's when it all began.

"What makes it an upside down cake?" I heard L's brother ask from the table. That was it. That was the opening sequence to the most amicable civil war in the history of mankind: an innocently yet stubbornly heated banter that lasted for, without exaggeration, the entire night. According to L's brother (C), a cake can only be upside-down if it has a right-side-up counterpart, and as there are no cranberry cakes with the cranberries hidden on the bottom, this was, in fact, false advertising. My wonderful cake spurred a discussion to end all holiday familial debates, and I joked that my controversial cake would be enough to get me banned from all future L-family gatherings.

Luckily for the longevity of our relationship, I am invited back next year. Unfortunately for my cranberry upside down cake, it is not. And so this cake comes with a warning - no matter how endearing it is, sitting in its one-layer glory with little red gems studding the surface, and no matter how addicting it is in the way the sour cranberries cut into the sweetness of brown sugar and molasses - it is powerful enough to create a (friendly) schism in even the most amiable of families. Do not judge this little book by its cover. But at the same time, do not let this recipe pass you by without trying it. It may not be allowed back into the old school house, but I will gladly usher it into other unsuspecting people's homes, because it's just worth it. And I don't expect many people to question its authenticity.

This recipe came from the unfailing Smitten Kitchen, who I turn to time and again for reliably delicious yet simple recipes. The cake, which Deb called non-traditional in the world of upside-down cakes, is sturdy but so soft and smooth. Forget the cranberries for just a second (just a second, I promise!) and just think about this cake. Mix it into ice cream, spread some fruit butters over it, layer it with whipped cream - but whatever you do, try it, because it's just about perfect. In this recipe, it's a sponge waiting to sop up the sugary glaze from the topping, whose decadence works wonderfully with the simplicity of the cake beneath it. Think sweet, but not overpowering; studded with the feisty bite of cranberries, wilted by the heat to make them blend even more into the cake and caramelized topping around it. I'm not connoisseur of upside-down cakes; to my knowledge, this may have been the first one I've ever tasted. For all I know, I have just described a very standard upside-down cake, and I'm the only one still impressed. But I have a feeling that this is not the case. I have the sneaking suspicion that although other upside down cakes are good, and although this is not radically different from the definition of an upside-down cake, this is just one step above. Once again, the Smitten Kitchen does not disappoint.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 1 cake*
The Ingredients
Butter or cooking spray, for the baking pan
2/3C (5 ounces or 142 grams) packed, light brown sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks, 6 ounces or 171 grams) unsalted butter, melted (I used salted)
1 Tbsp. unsulphured molasses (I used 1/2 Tbsp + 1/2 Tbsp. honey, as the recipe mentioned that the molasses taste does come through, and I was nervous about this)
2C (8 1/2 ounces or 242 grams) all-purpose flour
1C (7 ounces or 198 grams) sugar
2 tsp. (9 grams) baking powder
1 tsp. salt (omitted)
3 large eggs, room temperature (totally forgot to leave them out, as usual)
1C (8 1/2 ounces or 242 grams) sour cream
2C (8 ounces or 230 grams) fresh or frozen cranberries
Optional flavorings: 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract, 1/4 tsp. almond extract, 1 Tbsp. orange or lemon juice or 1/4 tsp. zest, 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, few gratings of fresh nutmeg or a combination thereof (I wish I could remember if I did this, but the addition of orange sounds genius)
Whipped cream, optional

The Method
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9in. round cake pan, then cover the bottom of the cake pan with parchment (or, in my case) wax paper. This is potentially unnecessary, but I'm not one take chances when my reputation as being able to make beautifully presentable baked goods is on the line. Also, I used a shallower pan than Deb did (according to her pictures), so definitely go with a deeper one if you have it. More on that later.
2. Combine the brown sugar, 1/4C butter (melted), molasses (/honey), and water in a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stir well, and pour into the cake pan.
3. Meanwhile, sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.
4. Using an electric mixer and a whisk attachment, beat the eggs and sour cream (at medium speed) until combined. If you're using any optional flavorings, add these here. Add the rest of the butter and beat until incorporated, making sure to keep the sides of the bowl scraped down. Add in the flour mixture, mixing until smooth. I did this in batches just to prevent an explosion of flour in my face, but this wasn't specified in the original recipe. Perhaps it's just assumed as common sense.
5. Delicately press the cranberries into the molasses and brown sugar mixture in the cake pan. I crammed as many in as I could in one layer, and am very happy with the amount in the end product. Spoon the batter over it, being careful not to disturb the fruit.
6. Bake in the oven on a center rack with a baking sheet beneath it to catch any overflow, for about 30-35 minutes. The recipe calls for about 45 minutes, but neither Deb's nor mine took this long. I should have written down the exact time but, alas, I am not that thoughtful when running around in baking-mode. The cake should be a golden color and the age-old toothpick test is important (make sure it comes out clean).
7. When done, remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes before running a knife around the edge and flipping onto a cooling rack (if not serving immediately) or a large serving platter, to serve immediately and warm. If you're going for the former, as I did, you definitely want a piece of wax paper underneath the rack, because dripping will happen, even if you were lucky and avoided the oven overflow. Also, keep in an airtight container until serving (once cool.)

*Note: Probably because of my shallow(er) pan, I couldn't get all of my batter into one pan. I came incredibly close, but even where I stopped pouring I still watched the oven while it baked, fixated on the ever-rising cake and seemingly ever-shrinking pan. I took the extras and spooned them into another round cake pan and baked it for maybe 15-20 minutes; it was very small and flat, but I'm so happy I did this. It was perfect as a small little treat, or with a dollop of a pumpkin cream cheese dip I had also made that week. So if you wind up in this boat, don't fret - it's just an added pancake-like cake. Like a bonus feature!

All controversy aside, this really is an excellent cake, and perfect for the up and coming holiday season. It did not leave my kitchen (re: my mom's kitchen) a disaster zone, didn't take very long, and holds up pretty well over time (though eating it fresh and warm is, clearly, ideal).

I have so many recipes that I want to share with you, and with winter break coming up, you can count on seeing more of me around here. I hope that everyone is holding up well, and if life as is chaotic for you as it has been for me, well...bake one of these cakes, sit down with a nice holiday special, and just take a break from it all. Everyone needs one of those days.

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