Some of my favourite recipes are those that involve a slightly risky frisson of surprise. Those ‘no-peeking’ dishes where, perhaps worryingly, you won’t know how they’ve turned out until the cooking is over and the moment of revelation is at hand. A stew that’s been simmering and melding beautifully under a lid in the oven for a few hours, for example. What went in as lumps of meat and veg suspended in a watery broth emerges – hopefully – as a dark, glossy and unctuous mass of slippery vegetables and tender chunks of meat, deeply rich and savoury.
Or, perhaps, a crumble. What begins as anaemic pieces of raw fruit and a pale, sandy topping succumbs lusciously to the transformation of heat, emerging as a golden, crunchy, buttery delight, the crumble top giving way to a beautiful sweet, sticky, hot mass of collapsed fruit below, the crust soft and gooey where it meets this juicy medley.
Anything cooked en papilotte – in a parcel of some sort – also comes under this heading. I like to bake stone fruits in a foil parcel (ideally over the barbecue) until they collapse and become soft, their flavours intensely concentrated. No peeking, though, or the point of sealing them up (to lock in the moisture and almost steam them) is redundant. The same applies to some wonderful south-east Asian dishes where meat or fish is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, ideally over hot coals. I make a fabulous Cambodian recipe involving marinated chunks of fresh mackerel, baked in this fashion. The leaves lend a wonderful smoky aroma to the fish, and keep it superbly moist.
But perhaps the ultimate no-peeking dish is the upside-down cake or tart. From the sophisticated French tarte tatin to the more prosaic and less elegant (and probably British, I’m not sure of its exact origins) pineapple upside down cake, there is a definite magic in the moment of revelation for these sweet treats; the moment where the tin or pan is flipped over (always slightly heart-stopping, and frequently logistically awkward) to reveal the magical transformation of raw fruit into caramel-saturated, golden sticky morsels.
And oh, those morsels. For me, nothing beats the combination of a good upside-down cake or tart: pastry or sweet sponge, light and moist and buttery in the centre, increasingly gooey and treacly as it meets the fruit, where it becomes soaked in butterscotch-scented caramel, perfumed from the fragrance of the fruit, whichever you choose.
I’ve made many an upside-down cake in my life, but certain combinations work particularly well. Apples and pears are always excellent, provided they are caramelized and cooked sufficiently first. Berries can be delicious, especially a mixture of firm berries like blueberries and currants, with softer berries more keen to yield up their juice, like raspberries and a few strawberries (try this recipe, inspired by a cake called bublanina that I ate in Prague; or this stunningly inky blueberry and elderflower upside-down cake). Peaches and other stone fruits are fabulous – plums make one of the best ever upside-down cakes, while apricots are also gorgeous, especially if you add some almonds to the mix, and peaches are good with a scattering of redcurrants (try this recipe).
Recently, though, I’ve experimented with bananas. This coffee and caramel banana upside-down cake is wonderful – if you’re sceptical about the combination of bananas and coffee, don’t be – the coffee adds a beautiful fragrance to the moist sponge. Bananas are excellent for baking in an upside-down fashion because they turn beautifully soft and gooey, almost dissolving into the caramel and sponge, and – of course – because bananas and caramel are incredible together.
So, in the spirit of this, here’s an obscenely decadent and delicious upside-down cake. It’s inspired by a recipe by Bill Granger, but I’ve tweaked it a little to my taste (a phrase which, for me, often means ‘added cinnamon’). The base is a simple sponge with a dash of vanilla, but rippled with buttery pecans (the ultimate nut to pair with bananas, with the brazil nut following close behind). The topping is a heady mixture of maple syrup, dark brown sugar, cinnamon and butter, bubbled until rich and thick, and sliced bananas, which melt seductively into the burnished caramel. It doesn’t really need any more introduction – cake, bananas, maple syrup, caramel, and pecans: are you not salivating already?
Banana, maple syrup and pecan upside-down cake (serves 8):
For the caramel and topping:
- 50g butter
- 50g dark muscovado sugar
- 60ml maple syrup
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 3-4 bananas, peeled, sliced in half widthways then lengthways
For the cake:
- 100g butter, softened
- 200g light muscovado sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 155g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- A pinch of salt
- 100g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
Put the topping ingredients (except the bananas) in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Cook for 5 minutes or so, until the syrup is dark and thick. Grease a 22cm springform cake tin, and pour the caramel into the bottom. Arrange the bananas, cut side down, over the bottom of the tin on top of the caramel so it is covered. Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating in between each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into the mixture and fold in until combined, then fold through the pecan nuts. Pour the mixture over the bananas and caramel, even it out with a spatula, then put the tin on a baking tray (to avoid any leaking caramel ruining your oven floor).
Bake for 35-40 minutes until the sponge is golden and springs back when pressed in the middle. Leave to cool in the tin for around 15 minutes, then put a plate over the tin and invert. Serve warm, preferably with cold vanilla ice cream.
[Inspired by ‘Best of Bill’ by Bill Granger]