Is there anything more satisfying to the home baker than flipping an upside-down cake or tarte tatin correctly? Our writer thinks not.
Take a moment to consider the popularity pendulum of the pineapple. It reached its apex at the beginning of the 20th century, becoming “particularly fashionable in the 1920s” and temporarily displacing our beloved banana as the hot tropical fruit of the moment, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. So, too, did its juice, because Americans were—ahem—thirsty. “Strangely enough, [with] the advent of Prohibition in 1920, canned fruit juice came to be considered an elegant addition to the breakfast table.” (One wonders what the previous breakfast beverage du jour was!)
That pineapples were so chic is amusing when you think about how… not chic the pineapple upside-down cake is now. (See a great micro-history here.) But I’d argue that—like its sibling in the world of flipped sweets, France’s tarte tatin, it’s one of the most satisfying desserts to make, and as was true a century ago, its presence at a party pleases a crowd.
Tarte tatin is the dessert I make most often when I want to impress. If you’ve never had it and are accustomed to apple pie, envision a caramel apple pie with a thin, dense, almost shortbread-like crust. You make a simple dough in a food processor and set it aside, then simmer butter and sugar together, place apple rounds on top, and nudge—really, Tetris—the fruit slices together as they cook down. (Be sure to have lots of little peeled apple bits at the ready.) The nature of the caramel is key; I like mine nice and golden, as opposed to light, so I wait until the butter-sugar mixture bubbling beneath the apples acquires a round, booming caramel flavor. That’s when I throw dough on top of the whole thing and pop it in the oven. Although some prefer lighter pans because cast-iron conducts a lot of heat, and means you really have to watch your caramel, I love my inexpensive 12-inch cast-iron Lodge skillet, which can make a large enough dessert for 8 to 12 people.
More interested in making a pineapple upside-down cake? Good on you. This recipe is delicious and simple, and instead of flopping dough on a hot skillet as you do with tarte tatin, you can simply pour some batter on top of the fruit in your pan. It’s much easier, but the pineapple (try cutting your own instead of using pre-sliced, as it’s cheaper and not that hard) gets that lovely caramelized flavor that somehow mellows the oh-my-goodness intense sweetness of the fruit.
Once either dessert has baked and settled down for a few minutes, it’s time for the flip, and time to get amped. I like to put on a Beyoncé or Jay Z song and then shoo everyone out of my kitchen. (If you’re anything like me, you don’t want an audience for an anxiety-inducing moment.) Bust out a long-sleeved shirt and make sure you’re wearing pants. Get out sturdy oven mitts, but ones in which your fingers can be nimble. You’re going to want to flip these suckers onto large serving plates, sheet pans, or trays. Run a butter knife around the inside of your skillet to loosen the dessert’s edges, and make sure you’re pinching the skillet and serving tray together as tightly as possible. If you have a large sink, flip the whole thing over that, with the faucet pushed to the side. You should hear a thunk when the tart has come unglued. If your instinct says to make a fist and firmly tap the skillet on top once or twice, do it. Carefully remove the skillet and invert. If there’s a hole in the top of your cake, no problem; use tongs or a fork to pluck out the bits you need. When done correctly, a flipped fruit dessert looks like a gorgeous stained-glass window—that you can eat!
And it is a rush. The “We are the Champions” moment. Or “Rocky on the steps of the art museum.” And if it doesn’t pan out—ha!—if something slides, or sticks, or whatnot, just preserve what you can, put it in a bowl with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and act like a cobbler is precisely what you had in mind the whole time.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.