Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake
There are some things in life I’ve learned I just can’t resist.
Crisp, chewy, savory bacon (and I say this after not one, but several attempts to go vegetarian.) My dog, Tilly, when she’s sad: her eyes are big and brown as chocolate covered cherries, rimmed with black like kohl eyeliner, with eyelashes that make me jealous. Filtered kitchen sunlight at 11 AM. Cinnamon rolls – fresh from the oven, speckled with fragrant spices and swirled with cream cheese glaze, melting into the swirl… how can you pass one up?
And farmer’s markets. There’s something about those white tents that makes me want to spend all day beneath them. There’s serenity in the rich displays of fruits and vegetables, handmade bracelets and jewel-like jars of amber honey.
My favorite farmer’s market – my favorite place in Seattle, even – is the famous Pike Place Market. I wrote an essay about it as my favorite place when I was in 2nd grade. I’d never seen anything so eclectic and teeming with creativity and fragrant with spices and flowers and fruit. Between the bundles of rainbow chard and displays of stained glass kaleidoscopes, I honestly thought the place was magic.
I loved the spice shop, stacked from floor to ceiling with glass jars of every tea, coffee, and spice you could think of. I’d carefully pull down a heavy jar with two hands, lift the lid with a little clink. Then I’d inhale the fragrant air blooming above it, utterly at peace.
And the gorgeous jelly and jam stand, which set out popsicle sticks to taste test all of their varieties. Among my favorites were blackberry lavender, raspberry chipotle, and rose – flavors which seemed to me so exotic and breathtaking, flowers blossoming on my tongue.
And the fish vendors around the market. Many people have heard about the famous stall that throws your order across the shop, but my dad and I prefer a smaller, quieter seafood vendor tucked near the heart of the market. I loved the brilliant rainbow sheen of fish scales, the long, fleshy tongues of geoduck clams, and especially the oily, smoky, irresistible smoked salmon samples I could never turn down.
Despite all the years, not much has changed, and Pike Place Market is still woven with an intangible magic. One morning, I had some thank you gifts I needed to deliver around Seattle. Dad and I left the house early, so we stopped at the market to kill some time. For one of the first times, we quickly found parking on the cobblestone street between tents. We drank coffee and people-watched, then we strolled between stalls.
The market was quieter than I’d ever seen it, still sleepy in the new day light. I could see shopkeepers and artisans arranging their products, setting up their stands, chatting easily with their neighbors. Street musicians warmed up and stretched, a vendor sipped tea as she arranged a bouquet of lilies just so.
“I really like this,” I breathed to my father, nearly whispering so I wouldn’t break the magic.
“What about it?”
“It’s more than the produce and the products. They’re all people.”
It’s yet another aspect of the market that I adore. It’s easy to strike up conversation with the woman who grew the tomato you’re sampling. I know exactly where these flowers once breathed, where they were picked and pressed, how far they traveled to get here. One man tells me about his technique and his tools as I try on the silver rose ring he forged with his fingertips.
Somehow I always end up striking conversation with the farmers and stall vendors, discussing everything from this season’s plums to journalism in Boston to 17 and Baking. It’s truly what makes the place special – the human connection there. It’s really the one thing I can’t resist.
Well… that, and samples. How can anyone stand in the midst of such rosy apples, beautifully crooked carrots, clusters of champagne grapes and not accept an offer to taste? My dad was amused at all the stops I made to try everything available, even the things that weren’t ready. We both sampled sunset-hued Rainier cherries before we returned to the car.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a little too early in cherry season. They aren’t quite ready yet,” Dad answered.
“That’s what cherry cornmeal upside down cake is for.”
The cherries are simmered in butter, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar. The simple, thick cornmeal cake batter is spread right over them in the skillet and baked until golden brown. Flavorful, moist and coarse-crumbed, topped with glistening dark cherries like a jewelry box. Perhaps early cherries aren’t so bad.
My mom bought a bag of glossy red cherries a little too soon – we are cherry people, and we are impatient. We tried eating a few, but they just weren’t ready. Undeterred, I decided to make this cherry cornmeal upside down cake. Even with not-quite-amazing cherries, the cake was unusually good. I don’t know if it was the touch of balsamic vinegar, which brought out the cherries’ sweetness, or the cornmeal, which gave the cake the slightest of crunches. Whatever it was, this incredibly simple cake is a perfect summer dessert.
Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake
Slightly adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes a 10” round, single layer cake
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature, divided
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
5 cups whole pitted fresh Bing cherries (about 20 oz unpitted cherries)
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
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
Preheat the oven to 350ºF and center a rack in the oven.
Stir 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, brown sugar, and vinegar together in a 10” ovenproof skillet with 2” tall sides. Mix over medium heat until the butter melts and the sugar is dissolved, around 2 minutes. Turn the heat up to high, toss in the pitted cherries, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Beat remaining 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) butter in an electric mixer. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, around 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, beat until combined. Add half the flour mixture, then half the milk, then the remaining flour mixture, and the remaining milk, beating until just combined after each addition.
In a clean, dry bowl with clean, dry beaters (or a whisk) beat egg whites until foamy. Beat in the cream of tartar until the whites are stiff but not dry. Stir 1/4 of the whites into the cornmeal batter, then fold the remaining whites with a rubber spatula in 3 additions. Spread the batter over the cherries in the skillet, covering them completely.
Bake until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the skillet for 5 minutes, then run the spatula around the edges of the cake to loosen it. Set a large plate over the skillet and firmly flip the two together. Leave the upside-down skillet on top of the plate for 5 minutes so that the cake and cherries completely separate from the pan. Lift off the skillet and let the cake cool for 45 minutes before cutting.
Printer-Friendly Version – Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake