Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake

July 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm 47 comments

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake 3

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.

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake 7

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.

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake 6

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.

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake 5

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.”

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake

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.

Cherry Cornmeal Upside Down Cake 2

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

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47 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tanja  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    We are cherry people as well! At least my parents. Too bad that the cherry season is almost over here. The cake looks delicious and I would love to make it. I don’t own a cherry pitter yet though, so I’ll probably wait at least until I get some kind of a blood spatter lab, the kind that Dexter has.
    Thanks for the great post! :)

    • 2. Elissa  |  July 23, 2010 at 4:07 pm

      Tanja – I don’t have one either! I pitted all 5 cups by hand using a chopstick.

      Nicole – Thank you :) I use a Canon Rebel XTi. I use a 50mm 1.8 and a 50mm 2.8 for shooting.

  • 3. Elissa's Dad  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I recall you talking about trading journals with your friend in Paris, it seemed as if you experienced different trips though you two were side by side. But I recall that day with you and it seems we experience it in such a similar way.

    I love watching you delight in these things as I delight in them….and you. We have had some great moments you and I. Some big and life changing, some small and seemingly inconsequential, but that morning at Pikes, those precious moments with you are what my life is really about.

    I used to think I would do and accomplish great things, by most standards I failed miserably and squandered a life. But every day I see you I know I did something that changed this world.

    Don’t stay in Boston too long….

  • 4. applecidermama  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Looks delicious. As a fellow Seattlite, I will attest that I just cannot stay away from Farmers Markets during cherry season, either. It’s like an addiction; they draw you! Over here on the Eastside, there is at least one market selling organic cherries any given day of the week, and I am putty in the vendors’ hands. :)

    I just started following your blog, and wanted to say how very much I am enjoying it. I am also a writer (novelist, poet, and some articles) and I’m originally from the East, and I wish you the best of luck when you head off to college (Boston, I believe you said?) You will love Boston.


  • 5. Nicole Braden  |  July 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Wow! That looks amazing!!!!!! I am definitely a cherry girl! What kind of camera do you use? Your photos are gorgeous!

  • 6. Stephanie  |  July 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Maybe one day you should put together a little book comprised of the comments from your father. He is such a thoughtful, tender man and his comments nearly always make me well up. A life not wasted one bit.

  • 7. Jessie @ simplysifted  |  July 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I made this cake last year and it’s awesome! I actually consider it to be one of the best cakes I’ve ever made. I can’t recommend it enough.

  • 8. debbie  |  July 23, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Holy cow, that looks AMAZING! Love the crunch of cornmeal with fruit. And cherries are my absolute favorite fruit–we go through at least a pound a day this time of year. Mmmm.

  • 9. Brittany  |  July 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Hi there, just found your blog and I’m glad I did! Firstly, your writing is absolutely beautiful – I can imagine the fresh produce at the farmer’s markets and you chatting happily with them. Farmer’s markets are one of my favourite places to visit too! Also, this recipe is just fabulous and your photography is clear and professional. Well done at such a wonderful blog…will be back to explore again soon!

  • 10. Bonnie Riffle  |  July 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    My husband and I lived close to Seattle for 2 years. We lived in Redmond. We loved going to Pike Place. I especially love the little ladies that make the bundle of flowers and wrap them in white paper. I miss that market….it is such a wonderful place! Thanks for bringing all of my memories back to life with your wonderful descriptions of the market. Your recipe looks fantastic! I love cherries too. Every summer I can’t wait for cherry season! It is my absolute favorite fruit!

  • 11. Indigo  |  July 23, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    I love your writing, you manage to capture things so beautifully. The timing of this is quite funny as well, my mother suggested last night that I write about our farmers market, though it sounds like it’s a lot smaller than the seattle ones.

    Would this work in a cake pan?
    We don’t have an oven, just a combination microwave so a skillet wouldn’t fit.

    • 12. Elissa  |  July 24, 2010 at 9:39 am

      Indigo – I’m sure a 10″ or 11″ cake pan would work fine, just scrape the cherries and all of their juices into the cake pan and spread the batter over. I’m not familiar with combination microwaves… what are they?

  • 13. Adriana from Bittersweet Baker  |  July 24, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I love it when I load my email account and there is a new 17 and Baking post waiting to be read. I always save that email until the end, so I can savor every word you have written and every photograph you have taken.

    My family and I were visiting Seattle yesterday, and my parents stopped by Pike’s Place. How I wish I had gone with them, so I could have experienced everything you wrote about!


  • 14. Kaia  |  July 24, 2010 at 8:53 am

    “Fragrant air blooming above it.”

    By far my favorite line from your posts (which is difficult because you paint such beautiful pictures with words)

    Former student of Ms. J M who posted your blog on her facebook. Congratulations!

  • 15. Wizzythestick  |  July 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    If I could find cherries in my part of the world I would make this…..until then I’ll just have to stare longingly at my screen. I love cornmeal cakes and this one is stunning

  • 16. indigo  |  July 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    A combination microwave has defrost settings and oven settings and other buttons that do something but I’m not sure what.

    You can use metal pans/racks in a combination microwave when it’s on oven settings but obviously you have to take any metal out if you want to use it as a plain old microwave.

    Thank you for the cake pan advice.

  • 17. Alexandra  |  July 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    This cake looks great will have to make it sometime.

  • 18. Annice  |  July 24, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Every time you update I get so excited to read your stories. I live in Vancouver and we have a place just like Pike Place called Granville Island. It’s one of my favourite places, too! I’ve never been to Pike’s, but my family is heading down there soon, so I’m looking forward to that. I hope you have an awesome time in Boston! What school are you going to?

  • 19. Abby  |  July 24, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I love reading your recipes and stories! You are an amazing writer. A friend told me about your blog and I am so glad she did- it is a treat to read about your adventures!

  • 20. Reyanna  |  July 25, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now and though it’s out of character for me to leave comments on the blogs enjoy, I feel compelled to tell you that I think you are a wonderful writer.
    First you lured me in with your beautifufl pictures and then captivated me with your heartfelt words.
    I go to your blog and a few others for weekly inspiration to keep me excited about trying new recipes and cooking for my family. (I made those egg rolls two days ago and they were a hit!)
    Also, the comment(s) your father leaves for you literally bring me to tears in a very very good way.
    I know you will do great in all your endeavors as you are talented and intellegent and you seem to have a big heart. I’m glad you “feel” things the way you do. The world needs more people like you!

  • 21. Fatima  |  July 26, 2010 at 4:05 am

    Hi Elissa,

    Here in South Africa, we don’t get cornmeal as you call it in the U.S. We have a version called mielie meal, which (from what wikipedia says) is sort of like cornmeal but is made from white maize instead of yellow maize. Do you think this will work for this cake? If I try it I will let you know – will have to wait though, cherry season here only starts late November.

    (p.s. I’m moving to Boston to study too! Only from much further away and only in August 2011)

  • 22. sugar plum fairy  |  July 26, 2010 at 8:40 am

    How nice to meet you, Elissa.
    I’m 17, so only one year younger. I love baking too, that’s why I’m here. I would be very happy if you could visit me as I;m doing my first steps in blogging.

    I haven’t done any cake with cornmeal. But that looks sooo delicious..

  • 23. Warm Vanilla Sugar  |  July 26, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I have always loved farmers markets too! I’m currently touring Europe, and have noticed that they are EVERYWHERE here. I can’t resist not buying plump cherries, even on the way to the train station with two back-packs and full hands. I will DEFINITELY make this cake when I return home!

  • 24. Maria  |  July 26, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Just wanted to point out that you don’t list milk in the ingredients list.

    • 25. Elissa  |  July 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

      Maria – Just fixed it. Thanks so much for the catch!

  • 26. Vanessa  |  July 26, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Elissa, I love your writing and I love the pictures! This looks delicious and definitely makes me want some unripe cherries now.

  • 27. Jenn  |  July 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Wow; I just discovered your blog and I have to say that I am mightily impressed with both your culinary skills and your writing ability. What do you plan to study in school?

    • 28. Elissa  |  July 26, 2010 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks Jenn! I plan to study journalism, though I think I’m also interested in magazine articles/creative non fiction/short stories/novels (basically all types of writing!) Hopefully I’ll get to take some classes on photography too.

  • 29. Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets  |  July 26, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Not bad at all! I’ve been even been to Cali, but now the Pike Place Market is high on my list of places to go. It sounds enchanting, and due to no small part to the lovely cake you wove from its fruits.

  • 30. Sierra  |  July 26, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    First of all, that looks looks really good. Cherries are already awesome, but you’ve made them that much more delectable, kudos :)
    Secondly, I’ve visited Seattle and the Pike Place Market quite a few times (live in Sequim, so it’s a trip) and I have to say you’re SO lucky to live near there! I look forward to reading more of your recipes.

  • 31. Wilde in the Kitchen  |  July 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

    I love the cherry/cornmeal cake combination! Your photos are making me hungry, I’m wishing my kitchen wasn’t packed in boxes moving across the country! I hope I can find cherries when I get all unpacked!

  • 32. Vic and Ver  |  July 27, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Your blog looks great and that cherry upside down cake. We’ll have to try that one.

  • 33. leashieloo  |  July 28, 2010 at 5:30 am

    So now I want cherries. And cornbread.

  • 34. Georgia @ The Comfort of Cooking  |  July 28, 2010 at 11:30 am

    What an incredible dessert. This looks like a magnificent summer treat! Great job, Elissa.

  • 35. Garcon de Croissant  |  July 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I just found your blog! Your cake looks great. I can’t believe you’re only 18. I didn’t start cooking until after college. :)

  • 36. Making my Mark  |  July 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    A family friend of mine loves Pike’s Place. Your description of it and food makes my mouth water.

  • 37. Kate  |  July 29, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Everytime I visit your blog I feel welcomed in by your beautiful pictures and supurb writing. As a fellow Washingtonian I love being able to understand what you are talking about.

    The Pike Place Market is such a lovely place to spend an afternoon. My mom and I won’t usually buy anything but I just enjoy walking around the stalls. There is so much atmosphere in a place like that, being there just makes you feel alive.

    Your blog has inspired me to pick up the pen and finally start writing the blog that I have dreamed about. I’ve tried to start one on countless occasions but I’ve never been sucessful. The emotion you put into your writing has inspiried me to try it again, this tme trying to really put my all into my posts.

    Thank you so much for inspiring me every time I read your blog! There aren’t many out there that put their heart and soul into it like you do.

  • 38. Kate  |  July 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Just had to post again to say that I agree whole heartedly with Stephanie’s comment.

  • 39. Jen  |  July 29, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I am a cherry person as well! Your pictures are absolutely gorgeous. I do have to say that looking through your blog was a real inspiration to me to start my own, and I just wanted to say thank you!

  • 40. nonna ivana  |  July 30, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Ciao Elisa!!!
    It’s a pleasure reading your recipes, where I find great passion for the atmosphere, the motivations for ingredients, fruits, way of baking, history!
    It’s so strange…on the other part of the worl, an old housewife has the same interests!
    Compliments !!!

  • 41. G.  |  July 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

    i miss my pike place market! your cake looks amazing!

  • 42. Kelly  |  August 1, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    “I know exactly where these flowers once breathed, where they were picked and pressed, how far they traveled to get here.”

    I somehow stumbled upon your blog, and I’m glad I did! I echo everyone else when I say that your pictures are stunning and you have a gift with words. Your prose is so poetic and evocative. Your readers can really get the sense of how much you love food!

    Best of luck in college! My obsession with baking deepened during my time away from home, so there’s hope that you can keep up your blog and find a way to cook even without your beloved Kitchenaid. Hopefully you’ll find friends with an apartment who will let you borrow their kitchen now and then. I’ve never had anyone refuse a good meal/good baked goods (just as long as you clean up after yourself!)

  • 43. the urban baker  |  August 24, 2010 at 6:47 am

    I love cranberries and I love cornmeal cakes! This looks delicious!

  • 44. Ingrid  |  August 29, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I’m having a craving for cherries now! Looks great!

  • 45. Pretty. Good. Food.  |  September 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Mmmm, sounds and looks divine! Yum!

  • 46. Aundrea L.  |  January 27, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Yummy! I’m a cherry person but not a cherry cake person but after seeing your pictures has me changing my mind. The cherry and the cornmeal seem to complement each other perfectly! Now next time of go to the farmers market I’m sure to pick up some cherries to make this delicious pie! Thank you for your writing.

  • 47. Something Sweet | Encourage Your Spouse  |  February 21, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    […] 17 and Baking – Elissa, a young baker, a photographer, a writer and a blogger –  this recipe is an upsidedown cornmeal cherry cake. […]


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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