We're just coming off of a long weekend of parties, finding ourselves facing a very busy week with not quite enough rest under our belts, and all of a sudden it seems like there is an awful lot looking for our attention. Beneath my feet, two dogs (ours and a spare we're sitting on for the week) wrestle around; on the table, a stack of unopened mail and unread magazines towers. And for some reason, in spite of the bright blue sky outside and the secure knowledge that things are really quite good, I find myself a little bit down today.
In order to combat that, I'll tell you about the party we went to on Sunday night. It was a big collection of friends from various restaurants, gathering together to fire up the pizza oven that will be installed at the Slow Food Nation bread pavilion this weekend. And fire it up they did, filling it with pizzas and ratatouille, with slow-roasted goat and crispy potatoes and wild salmon and wax beans and peaches and...well, you get the idea. A whole mess of food. The whole event was held in a metal-work studio a couple blocks from our house, and had the lovely bohemian quality that makes this part of the world so great. Somehow 80 people were fed from that oven, the wine didn't run out, the place didn't catch fire, and a feeling of wellness and plenty rolled over the crowd like a wave. It's too bad you can't bottle that feeling.
I didn't want to show up empty-handed, so Sarah and I made a bunch of nectarine upside-down cakes using our old favorite recipe from The Best Recipe cookbook, put out by Cooks Illustrated. In the scheme of things, this cake is relatively easy to turn out in quantity and it never disappoints (well, it disappointed once, when I accidentally forgot to fold in the beaten egg whites at the end. Oops.). You could make this cake over the weekend, serve it to dinner guests and then eat the leftovers for breakfast. Top it with pineapple or peaches or nectarines or prune plums or cherries.
Fruit upside-down cake
This cake bakes up very nicely in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and you can make the caramel topping right in the pan. If you don't have one, you ought to buy one. But if you want to make this cake RIGHT NOW you can use a 9-inch round cake pan, so long as it's got 3-inch deep sides.
For the topping:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
fruit of your choice, cut into this wedges or slices
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 stick butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup milk
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease pan (you don't need to grease a cast-iron). Melt butter in skillet. Once foaming subsides, stir in brown sugar and cook 2-3 minutes. The sugar and butter will clump and look terrible, but don't despair. Transfer to a cake pan, if using, or just proceed with next step if using cast-iron. That's the way it's supposed to look. Arrange fruit over sugar mixture in an attractive pattern and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Turn mixer to low and add egg yolks and vanilla, stopping mixer occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. With mixer on low, add dry ingredients little by little, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.
3. In a separate, clean, bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, then add in remaining 2 tbsp. sugar and continue beating until egg whites form stiff peaks. Stir 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until there are no longer white streaks in the batter.
4. Pour batter over fruit in pan and gently spread it to evenly cover, taking care to avoid disturbing the fruit layer. Bake until well-browned and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean (do not poke all the way to the bottom of the pan, as the fruit layer will remain gooey), about 50 minutes if you're using a cast-iron skillet, or 60-65 if you're using a traditional cake pan. Let rest on cooling rack two minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and flip cake out onto platter. Reposition any fruit that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan.