Published September 1, 2009.
Ever since pineapple came to town, apple upside-down cake has been a bit player. A successful comeback would require a flavorful topping and just the right kind of cake.
In most recipes, the apple slices taste bland and watery, and so the cake disappoints.
We wanted a moist, buttery cake and a luscious apple topping that was full of deeply fruity, caramelized flavor.
We started our tests with the apple topping and quickly hit a snag. When we inverted our cake onto a plate and cut a slice, we found that our topping of Granny Smiths, which we had chosen for their crisp texture and sharp acidity, had shriveled. The obvious solution was to add more apples, but we needed to find a way to do this without flooding the dessert with juice. Inspired by a technique we’ve used in other recipes, we sautéed some of the apples in butter until they softened slightly and developed a deep golden color, then added brown sugar, waited for the crystals to dissolve, and poured the topping into the cake pan. Voila! Not only did precooking the fruit release excess moisture, it allowed us to fit all of the apples, now infused with caramelized flavor, into the pan.
To ensure each piece of cake had fresh apple flavor, we sliced the uncooked apples very thin and let them bake with the apples that had been sautéed. Now all this full-flavored topping needed was a squirt of fresh lemon to add brightness and balance.
We required a cake that wouldn’t buckle under the weight of the apples. For a coarser crumb, we used the quick-bread method, in which the butter is melted and the liquid and dry ingredients are mixed separately before being combined. The melted butter introduces less air into the batter, creating a sturdier crumb. This made our cake moist, more substantial, and able to hold up under the topping.
We also used sour cream in the cake instead of milk. Its subtle tang complemented the caramelized apples. For another dimension of flavor, we swapped out some of the white sugar for light brown; in addition, a bit of cornmeal added earthiness and a pleasant hint of coarse texture. An extended rest in the pan allowed the topping to set, and turning the cake out onto a rack to finish cooling avoided sogginess.list of recipes