This year, I decided to add some desserts to my Thanksgiving repertoire, and after spying this eye-appealing recipe on the Williams-Sonoma site, I decided to try my hand at a cranberry upside down cake. So with a few ideas taken from a similar recipe from Martha, I concocted my own version of this recipe that combined what I felt were the best elements of both, plus some additional mods from moi.
But before we get to that, let’s talk cranberries!
Cranberries get their name from the distinctive shape of their open flowers, which look like the head of a crane. They are one of the three native fruits found in North America (the other two being blueberries and Concord grapes), and the Algonquins were among the first to harvest them, as components of both food and medicine. The first English settlers learned about cranberries from the Native Americans, and it is believed that they were served as the very first Thanksgiving dinner, and have been a holiday staple ever since. Here are some more fun facts:
The first NJ cranberry grower, John Webb, was also the first to notice that good cranberries bounce. He discovered this because, with his wooden leg, he had difficulty carrying his berries down the stairs, so he would drop them. Webb noticed that the good berries would bounce to the bottom, while the rotten berries would stay on the steps. Incidentally, good berries bounce because they contain small pockets of air that rotten ones lack. These pockets of air are also what makes good cranberries float, the rationale behind the “wet harvest” you have probably seen pictures of in cranberry bogs filled with floating cranberries. Contrary to popular belief, cranberry beds are only flooded at harvest time.
White cranberries are the same species as red cranberries, they are just harvested before the deep red color has a chance to develop.
Ocean Spray, the largest manufacturer of cranberry-related products in the US, is actually owned as an agricultural cooperative of cranberry and grapefruit growers, and has been around since 1930.
Now, back to the cake!
Fair warning: cranberries are tart. Delicious. But tart. This may look like a cake with cherries on top, but it sure doesn’t taste like it. This cake is a mature flavor best suited for adults. Kids will love the look of the cake, but probably not the taste, so although I highly recommend this cake, I’d also recommend making sure it isn’t the only dessert offering if there are lots of kiddies at your holiday table. Fair enough? Good. Who ever heard of too many desserts anyway, right? Psssht. Not me, that’s for sure.
Now, this cake makes for a beautiful presentation that is actually very simple to assemble. The whole process begins with an orange. Zest and juice it. Then, throw some of the juice and half the zest in a saucepan with some brown sugar and butter, which you keep on medium heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved.
Throw in some cinnamon and a pinch of allspice right before you are done. Then, you pour it into a 9” round cake pan that has been butter sprayed, with a parchment round on the bottom that has also been butter sprayed. Trust me, you’ll thank me later on. I hardly ever heed directions that recommend parchment-lining cake pans, and honestly I rarely have an issue…but for this cake, I truly believe depanning it would be very difficult without the parchment round on the bottom. So, pour the sugar/butter/orange/spice mixture into the pan, and spread it over the entire bottom (you can probably just tilt the pan to do this, it worked fine for me). Once that layer is down, it is time to sprinkle on the cranberries. You will use nearly all of the ¾ lb bag, less a few berries. Sprinkle them on so that there is complete coverage over the bottom of the pan, but only a single layer of berries, like this:
Now, you can start assembling the dough. First, combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) in a bowl. Separately, cream together butter and sugar, then add yolks(one at a time), vanilla and the remaining orange juice and zest. Then, start adding the dry ingredients, alternating each addition of the flour mixture with an addition of buttermilk.
Whip the whites and the cream of tartar with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form, and then fold the whites into the batter with your spatula or a wooden spoon.
Then, spoon the batter over the cranberries and spread it evenly.
Bake at 350F for 55-60 minutes, until cake bounces back and a wooden skewer comes out clean. Now, when I made this, my batter overflowed just a tad. I’m not 100% sure why, and it was nominal, but do yourself a favor and put the pan on a cookie sheet while you are baking it.
Then, you cool it 15 minutes in the pan, invert it and leave it for another 5, and then finally de-pan it. Is all that necessary? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that the cranberry topping came out of the pan perfectly using this method, so I’m sticking to it!
Although it isn’t pictured, this cake is best served with some sweetened whipped cream (recipe below) or some Reddi-Wip, which will cut through the tartness of the berries.
This cake is quite tasty and definitely different. The orange comes through nicely and adds depth to the flavor, as does the hint of cinnamon and allspice in the berries, the cake is yummy and moist, and the cranberry layer combines both sweet and tart. Visually, the ruby red jewel-like topping is a stunner. Again, the cranberries are still on the tart side, even smothered in sugar and butter, because they are whole berries and not a sweetened sauce. But between the sugar, orange and whipped cream, I think the tartness is at an acceptable level (although this might vary from person to person). If you hate cranberries, this might not be your dessert. But if you want a little sumpin’ sumpin’ different from the usual offerings that still screams “holidays!” then this is it!
Cranberry Upside Down Cake
- ¾ lb (12 oz) bag of fresh (or thawed frozen) whole cranberries
- 1 C brown sugar
- ½ stick unsalted butter
- 2 tbls orange juice
- Half of the orange zest
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- Pinch of allspice
- 1 ½ C AP flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1 C sugar
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 tbls orange juice and remaining zest
- ½ C buttermilk (you can clabber your own with 1/2 tbls of lemon juice or white vinegar and ½ C milk for about 10-15 minutes)
- 1/8 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 C heavy cream
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tbls confectioner’s sugar
- Preheat oven to 350F
- Butter a 9”-round cake pan. Put a parchment round onto the bottom of the cake pan, and butter that as well
- Place brown sugar, ½ stick of butter, 2 tbls of orange juice and half of the zest of one orange in a saucepan. Heat on medium until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Add cinnamon and allspice about halfway through heating.
- Pour the topping into the bottom of the pan, and tilt pan to ensure full coverage
- Sprinkle a single layer of cranberries on top of the sugar/butter mixture, packed tightly, but no more than one berry layer thick
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside
- Cream together the butter and sugar used for the batter. Add egg yolks one at a time and mix until thoroughly combined. Add in the vanilla and remaining juice/zest, and mix until combined
- Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour. Beat each addition until just combined
- In a separate bowl, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar, and whip with a had mixer until still peaks form
- Fold whites into batter by hand, and spoon onto the cranberry layer, spreading batter until even and touching all sides of the pan
- Place pan on a cookie sheet, and bake for 50-60 minutes, until golden, cake springs back, and toothpick inserted comes out clean
- Transfer cake pan to wire rack and cool in-pan for 15 minutes
- Invert onto serving plate, and let stand inverted for 5 minutes before removing the pan
- For the whipped cream: Using the whisk attachment on your mixer, or a hand mixer, whip the cream until soft peaks form, then stir in the vanilla and sugar