First, I am one of those jerks who, after it’s been cold for a while, I go around saying, oh, I don’t think it’s so bad! Lately, this jerk attitude has been exacerbated because I spent a few days in upstate New York, where it was biting cold – so cold that, on Tuesday night, I saw the aurora borealis (it was a huge, white, pink, and red fluttering curtain) and Wednesday morning, when I woke up, it was ten below zero. Coming back to Chicago seemed like coming back to a tropical isle.
Then on Sunday, in a burst of jerk overconfidence, I went outside with my coat open, and just a light top, and shoes instead of boots, and I got totally chilled. When we came home, I just could not get warm for the longest time, until I thought of the most obvious solution: turn on the oven, Einstein, and bake something.
This cake is what came out of feeling all frozen and rummaging around to see what we had on hand. It’s dense and not too sweet. The fruit is luscious. Cherry and almond always make each other seem even more luxurious, and the hint of star anise gives everything a subtle mysterious note.
Even though the batter is olive oil based, I still used butter in the fruit topping. This is why: Butter has water in it and, especially if you are using dried fruit, you need that. The little bit of water serves to cool the bottom of the pan during the baking, ever so slightly. Without it, the fruit will burn and blacken. With it, you have soft, tender fruit.
This cake comes out of the oven dense, light gold, and moist, fragrant with almond, shot through with tiny bits of star anise and the cherries burnished and gleaming on top. It’s best served warm, cut into wedges, but it’s also pretty great the next morning, for illicit breakfast.
Dried cherry upside down cake
For the fruit
2 cups dried tart cherries (see Kitchen Notes)
2-1/2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
Water, brandy, rum or bourbon (see Kitchen Notes)
For the batter
2 star anise, ground fine, about 2 teaspoons (see Kitchen Notes for substitutes)
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1-1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-3/4 cups flour
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Put the fruit in a small saucepan and cover with water (or brandy or rum). Heat to a simmer; turn off the heat and let the cherries soak for about 20 minutes. Drain (saving the liquid if it is alcohol).
2. Prepare the baking pan. You can make this upside-down cake in an 8-inch cast-iron skillet (see Kitchen Notes if you take this route), or in an 8-inch round cake pan. I couldn’t find either of those things anywhere (I told you I was really cold), but I did find the vaguely 8-inch square baking dish I use for gingerbread. It worked very well for this. Prepare the pan by coating lightly with oil.
3. Prepare the fruit. Put the butter and brown sugar in a small skillet – heat to melt the butter, then stir and simmer for three or four minutes. Then stir in the drained cherries and simmer everything together for a minute or two. If you are using a cast-iron skillet, you may start the fruit in it.
4. Grind the star anise into a powder – you can use a small electric spice or coffee mill, or do it by hand with a mortar and pestle. Our coffee grinder is getting ancient and did a pathetic job of the grinding, so I ended up finishing the process by hand, with the mortar. You want 2 teaspoons of star anise.
5. Put the star anise in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, add the white sugar, baking powder and salt.
6. In another mixing bowl, pour in the olive oil and add the yogurt and almond extract. Whisk together. Then add the eggs and whisk until everything is smooth and uniform.
7. If you are using a baking pan rather than a cast-iron skillet, pour the fruit mixture into the bottom of the pan and distribute it evenly.
8. Add the wet into the dry ingredients a little at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until everything is just mixed together. The batter will be rather thick. Pour it over the fruit and spread evenly.
9. Bake about 45 minutes or until the top is lightly golden and a thin blade inserted near the center comes out nearly dry. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin blade around the edge. To remove the cake from the pan, put a plate face down on top of the pan and flip over the whole shebang onto a serving plate. Serve warm or let come to room temperature.
Can I use other dried fruit? Absolutely. Dried peaches, apricots or even plums are terrific in this cake. I recommend cutting them into smallish pieces at the start of the process. If you are using apricots or peaches, you could add a little fresh very finely chopped rosemary too.
Water or liquor? Instead of water, you can substitute brandy, rum or bourbon (or just part of the liquid can be replaced). Either approach will soften the fruit.
Cast iron caveat. Cast iron is a fairly porous material – if you use a cast iron skillet to cook very aromatic savory dishes, that have lots of onion and garlic, the skillet may impart those flavors to the cake. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and use another pan.
No star anise? Instead, you may use 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg or mace.
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