Upside Down Desserts


This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on December 14, 2005

I guess I am just missing the pastry gene. In general, you know, I love to cook. Working in the kitchen teases and delights my senses, filling me with joy and with solace as I dice vegetables for rich stock, breath the earthy, steamy perfume of a pot of mushroom risotto, toss crisp greens with just the right amount of fruity olive oil and sea salt.

But with desserts I am ham-fisted; hours of frustrating labor are likely to leave me only with a kitchen liberally splattered with batter and something vaguely cake-like, listing alarmingly to one side of the plate.

It’s understandable, I suppose. We Barbours were never really dessert-eating people. My childhood memories are not fragrant with the aroma of home baking. A bite of a cookie does not send me off into a reverie about my past. There were no cozy hours at the stove, preparing holiday treats for friends and family. In fact, in my house, a pastry indulgence was likely to begin with one of those cardboard tubes of dough that popped open when you smacked them on the counter edge.

Really the only homemade dessert I remember my mom making (on rare and special occasions) is, not surprisingly, one of the few I can pull off today, and it’s still one of my very favorites. It’s a cake that makes relatively little mess, has no potentially lopsided layers to slide out of kilter, comes with a built in moisture source that makes it hard to dry out, and even, obligingly, ices itself. It is, of course, the pineapple upside down cake.

Upside down desserts are light-hearted food – conspiratorial, playful, possessing their own peculiar sense of humor. Has your cake baked unevenly, or split across the top? Flip that baby over and only you and the cake know for sure.

Besides, it does half the work. Persuading a dessert to dress itself up has always seemed to me to be the best of good kitchen collaboration, whether it’s the homey upside down cake, a rustic French tarte Tatin, or a silky crème caramel. All involve the same magic – melting sugar to form a caramel sauce, pouring the rest of the ingredients on top to cook, then upending the whole thing to release a gooey caramel topping over all.

The most familiar of the lot is probably pineapple upside down cake, but pineapple is only the tip of the upside down iceberg. One of my favorite summer versions uses plums, richly roasted and sweetened, soaking their juices into a cinnamon scented white cake. For winter, try the more seasonal version here, which combines meltingly luscious pears and a moist and not-too-sweet gingerbread cake. There are endless other possibilities – with bananas, mangoes, apples, cranberries, and chocolate to name just a few.

Pie, too, can deliciously turn tail over top, most notably in the apple tart made famous at the end of the 19th century. Legend has it that one of the French Tatin sisters allowed the apples for a pie to overcook in her hotel kitchen. Out of time, she covered the fruit with pastry and shoved it in the oven. When it was cooked, she flipped it over, et voila! A tarte Tatin is a fabulous dessert – the fruit caramelized to a mahogany brown, on the very edge of burnt sugar, served with creme fraiche on the side. And, naturally, apples are not the only fruit that can be Tatinized. Plums, apricots, and cherries work in the summer and for the winter, pears again are a spicy alternative to apples. Enjoy this pair of upside down pear recipes that go perfectly with the holiday season. Hope yours is a joyous and tasty one!

Ginger Pear Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook by editors at, a Web site about Seattle.

For the topping:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4-5 medium to large ripe pears, peeled, cored, and quartered lengthwise

For the batter:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons peeled, grated ginger
3 large eggs
2/3 cup molasses
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil a 9-inch springform pan, and line the bottom with a 10-inch circle of parchment paper.

To make the topping, combine 3 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Melt the butter over medium heat for about 1 minute; then pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan, completely coating the parchment paper. Place the quartered pears on top of the butter-sugar mixture, lining the pieces up tightly in a decorative circle so that none of the bottom shows through.

To make the batter, cut 2 sticks of butter into 1-inch pieces and put them in a large mixing bowl. Add 3/4 cup brown sugar and cream the mixture on medium speed for 3-5 minutes, until it is smooth and a pale tan color. Add the grated ginger and beat 1 minute more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating on low speed and making sure that each egg is fully incorporated before adding another. When all the eggs have been added, slowly pour in the molasses and beat to fully mix. The mixture will look as though it is “breaking” or curdling, but don’t worry – it will come together when the dry ingredients are added.

In a separate medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to fully combine.

Alternately add small amounts of flour and buttermilk to the batter, stirring and folding with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just absorbed. Do not overmix the batter. Pour and scrape the batter into the pear-lined pan, smoothing the top with a rubber surface. The pan will be nearly full.

Carefully transfer the pan to the center rack of the oven, and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Cover the pan with an upside-down serving plate; then carefully invert them together. Release the sides of the pan, and lift it away. Gently lift the pan’s base off the cake, and peel away the parchment paper. Allow the cake to cool for a half hour or so, and serve warm, with whipped cream.

Yield: One big cake, likely serving 10-12 people

Tarte Tatin aux Poires (Caramelized Upside-Down Pear Tart)

Adapted from Patricia Wells, Bistro Cooking (Workman Publishing, 1989.)

You can make a tarte tatin in a skillet and then transfer the fruit to an oven proof dish, cover with the pastry, and bake in the oven, or you can use a tarte tatin pan or other oven-proof vessel from the start. My preference is the heavy tarte tatin pan made by Le Creuset, available at Goods, on the Square, or by mail order. It is especially nice because its side handles make it easy to invert the tarte.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 to 8 firm pears (about 2 1/2 pounds, preferably bosc or anjou),  peeled, quartered and cored
1/2 cup sugar
1 recipe Pate Brisee (below)
1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Melt the butter in a tarte tatin pan (or deep skillet) over medium-high heat. Add pears and sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, for 20 minutes. Increase heat to high and cook for 15 more minutes, until pears turn a deep, golden brown. Watch carefully to avoid burning the fruit.

If you are baking the tarte in a separate dish, pile pears into that dish. Otherwise, remove pan from heat and roll out pastry slightly larger than
baking dish. Place pastry on top of fruit, tucking in along edges and down into dish.

Place tarte in center of oven and bake until pears bubble and pastry is a deep golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Remove the tarte from the oven and immediately place a large, flat heatproof serving platter on top of the baking dish or pan. Invert the pan and give the bottom a firm tap to release any pears that may be sticking to the bottom. Slowly release the baking dish so that the tarte falls evenly onto the platter. Serve warm or at room temperature, passing creme fraiche or sour cream.

Serves 8 to 10

Pate Brisee

1 to 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour (do not use unbleached)
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ice water

Place 1 cup of flour, the butter, and salt in a food processor. Process just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 10 seconds. Add the ice water and pulse just until the pastry begins to hold together, about 6 or 8 times. Do not let it form a ball. Transfer the pastry to waxed paper; flatten the dough into a disk. If the dough seems too sticky, sprinkle with additional flour, incorporating 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap the pastry in waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

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