Jeanne Thiel Kelley: Warm Apple-Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake
Posted on March 12th, 2011
“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Mark Twain
While she lays claim to The Golden State as home, my Mom’s side of the immediate family hails from the south. That fundamental extraction — my great grandparents, grandfolks, great aunts and uncles — were tagged with southern handles such as Ethel, Elsie, Billy, Hardy, Eddie, Jimmy, Wilma, Thelma, and Jasper. You get the idea. Bobber-fishin’, potluck-eatin’, guitar-pickin’, church-goin’ people who migrated north and west right when the gettin’ was good. They wound up in California’s Bay Area, throughout the inland and coastal reaches of Washington state, within Arizona’s interior desert country, and here in Oregon’s urban rain forests. Wherever they landed, at the heart of the Gregorys and the Milligans prevailed a southern influence of food and family, music and good-natured gatherings. Fine folks, all.
Being a Portlander, I choose to distance myself from the self-righteous politics and the religious zeal that, to my dismay, still colors some bloodlines in that part of the southern U.S. But I can’t deny my affection and connection to the land, the waterways, the goodness of most people down there, the literature, and the food. Faulkner, pork ribs, Capote, collard greens, Wendell Berry, jambalaya, John Kennedy Toole, and cornbread.
I do love my cornbread.
A week or so ago, I sat down for a bowl of Khao Soi Khai with my friend Jerry Channell. It had been some time, probably too long, so Jerry and I resolved to re-hitch our shared devotion to the hook, the cook, and the book. After an ample investment of time on matters of angling and eating, the discussion turned to Twain (and the author’s lucid forecasting and reportage on the state of politics and religion, the state of industry, and his generally unpopular state of the state). Twain’s line above, as he tells it, was delivered by a slave pastor from the author’s childhood. In that single sentence the pastor is confronting racial prejudice, social standing, economic disparity, and yet has tied all people together by our most elementary human need and our greatest ability: food and ideas. It’s not what it is, necessarily, that separates us, but rather how we go about getting it and from where it comes that broadens these divides or tempers our most ardent bonds. That we are simply human, born into certain circumstances and forced to take certain forks in the road. “Corn pone” is, at once, a source of nourishment and of judgment. The preacher’s statement reminds me of our differences and our similarities; that I am, at heart, a residing Pacific northwester — at times, influenced by midwest sensibilities — but deeply-rooted within the culture of the south. There is a natural comfort there for me which is increasingly difficult to describe. And, as you know, I harbor my ‘pinions.
We are from whence we come. We are but a blend of where we’ve been.
Lisa constructed this delightful little dessert on the day of my lunch with Jerry. It was there when I got home that day. Upon my first bite, it struck me as an ideal amalgam of traditional southern charm and crisp Pacific northwest contemporary. Twain meets Kesey. Harper Lee linked up with Ursula Le Guin (or maybe, Katherine Dunn). A little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll. Again, you get the idea. I don’t need to beat it over your head; it’s my beloved southern cornbread flavor and texture fused with fresh local fruit. Like a Tarte Tatin, without the fussy preparation and presentation.
Now, I come home for it again and again. For me, it tastes of everywhere.
6 to 8 servings
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 pounds Braeburn or Golden Delicious apples (about 4 medium), peeled, quartered, cored, each quarter cut into 2 wedges (Anjou or Bosc pears provide a uniquely Oregon experience)
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup boiling water
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk
Vanilla ice cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 9-inch-diameter cake pan with 1 1/2-inch-high sides; line pan with 10-inch-diameter parchment paper round (parchment will come 1/2 inch up sides of pan). Butter parchment. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 10-inch-diameter nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup sugar and cook until sugar dissolves and mixture turns deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Add apple wedges and gently shake skillet to distribute caramel evenly. Cover and cook until apples release their juices, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook until apples are tender and caramel thickens and coats apples, stirring occasionally, about 13 minutes. Transfer apples and caramel syrup to prepared cake pan, spreading evenly.
Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl to blend. Place cornmeal in large bowl; pour 1/2 cup boiling water over and stir to blend. Add 6 tablespoons butter and 3/4 cup sugar to cornmeal mixture. Using electric mixer, beat until well blended. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Beat in flour mixture alternately with milk in 2 additions each. Pour batter over apples in pan.
Bake cake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool cake in pan 5 minutes. Run small knife between cake and pan sides to loosen cake. Carefully invert cake onto ovenproof or microwavable platter and peel off parchment. Cool 15 minutes. DO AHEAD: Cake can be made up to 6 hours ahead. Rewarm in 350°F oven about 10 minutes or microwave on medium just until slightly warm, about 2 minutes.
Cut cake into wedges, place on plates, and serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Note: A slice of this is a flawless morning companion with a steaming mug of coffee. Make it with Oregon winter Anjou or Bosc pears as an ideal substitute for the apples called for above.