There were peaches on the counter that would not be ignored. You could smell them before seeing them, and they demanded something more grand than our morning oatmeal.
A cornmeal skillet cake has been on my to-make list for a while, and this low-maintenance cake that bakes only for about 20 minutes hit the spot. Peach slices float in browned butter at the bottom of the skillet, almost syrupy, before thick batter is spooned over the top. The crumb bakes up tender and the cake is heavy with the perfume of ripe fruit, herbs and the nuttiness of browned butter.
This is also an upside-down cake. In the moment before the flip, you hold your breath. Peaches could stick and cake could split. Cast iron is heavy and I thought we might break a plate. Then the cake fell out of the skillet and plopped right on to the plate. It’s beautiful. Thank you, butter.
The original recipe calls for lavender, but I didn’t have any and wanted something a touch more savory. Lavender seemed a little precious for a cornmeal cake anyway. Our balcony herbs are starting to thrive again (apparently they grow when you water them) and I decided on thyme.
The recipe called for three peaches, but the two I had turned out to be plenty. Use fine cornmeal if you think you’d prefer the texture. I suspect some people might be partial to something a little softer, more familiar in a cake. But me, I love this kind of cake. Not too sweet at all. Simple but somewhat unexpected flavors, and yet familiar at the same time. It reminds me of the pineapple upside-down cakes my sister and I made for my abuelito (granddad). He never said no to cake, and he would’ve wanted two slices of this one.
This is a cake to celebrate summer.
PEACH AND CORNMEAL UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE
- 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 medium ripe peaches, pitted and sliced into 3/4-inch wedges
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal or polenta (coarse or fine)
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or herb of choice), plus a few sprigs for garnish
- 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, using a pastry brush to coat the sides with butter as it melts. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar evenly across the buttered skillet. Cook until sugar starts to turn golden brown and bubble slightly, about 3 minutes. Arrange peaches in a circle at the edge of the skillet. Fill the center with the rest of the peach slices. Reduce heat to low, and cook until peaches are softened and the juices are brown and bubbling, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
Whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder, thyme and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the remaining stick of butter and 3/4 cup of sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Bring the speed down to medium. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating after each one, and scraping down the sides of the bowl to combine. Stir in vanilla and heavy cream. Reduce speed to low. Mix in the cornmeal mixture, one half at a time.
Drop the batter over the syrupy peaches in the skillet. Use a spatula to carefully spread the batter evenly over the fruit. The batter will be thick, and the browned butter juices of the peaches may come up the sides, but it will all turn out well.
Place skillet in the center of the oven and bake until cake is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes. Transfer skillet to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Cover the skillet with a serving plate and use both hands to grasp the sides of the skillet and plate. In one quick movement, flip the skillet over so the plate is on the bottom. Give the skillet a couple of taps to make sure the peaches come off. Lift off the skillet carefully and rearrange peach slices if necessary. Give it a minute to cool before serving. Garnish each slice with a sprig of thyme.
-- Adapted from marthastewart.com