Each year, I work hard to mete out my excitement about holiday recipes and holiday cooking. The food, I think, is a lot like any other part of observing the season—putting up decorations, listening to holiday music. Too late is too late. But there’s such a thing as too early, also, and it’s important not to overdo it. This wholesome sweet cherry upside down cake is my first Thanksgiving/holiday recipe of the season, and it’s a great one to start with.
A couple of years ago, I fell in love with Laurie Colwin. I gobbled up Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, then moved on to her fiction and loved it, too. Colwin likes simple food in general, and especially simple desserts; she has no patience for fussy pastries or decorative confections. The desserts she does love are homey, satisfying, and easy to make. Gingerbread is a particular favorite of hers.
These are my kinds of desserts, too. The homier and more rustic, the better. Cakes and quickbreads, mostly. “I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result,” Colwin says in a chapter of More Home Cooking titled “Waiting for Dessert.” I agree.
In that chapter, Colwin mentions something called a Nantucket Cranberry Pie. It is not, as she notes, “a pie, but a cake, and was served to me in the country by my friend Ann Gold…it is a snap, and, last but not least, it is truly good. If you wanted to do some lily-gilding, you might put some vanilla ice cream (or crème fraîche, or, if you have tons of time, custard) on the side, but Ann Gold serves it straight, which is, I feel, the best way.”
To make the cake, you layer cranberries and walnuts and sugar in the bottom of a springform cake pan, then pour cake batter over them. The pie comparison is because the cranberries constitute a kind of fruit filling, the cake a kind of metaphorical crust. The whole thing is essentially an upside down upside down cake.
This will be a year of simple Thanksgiving food, prepared mostly by me for me, since I won’t be cooking on the actual holiday. A four second cake has never sounded better. Last week, I finally tried my hand at the famous pie cake, but I made two key changes. After baking, I decided to invert the cake and make it more of a traditional upside down cake. To be clear, it’s equally delicious whether you invert it or not. But allowing the fruit layer to be visible is a little more festive looking.
Second key change: I used frozen cherries instead of cranberries. I love sweet cherries, and although they have a short season in my part of the country, I use the frozen ones to add sweetness and nutrition to recipes year-round.
Cherries are packed with health offerings: they’re a good source of potassium, they’ve got anti-inflammatory properties, and they’re rich in antioxidants that can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer and gout. They’re full of fiber, which aids in digestive and cardiac health. Cherries also contain melatonin, which may help to reinforce healthy sleep patterns.
All this, and cherries are also delightfully sweet, which makes them a perfect addition to dessert. Rainier and sweet cherries can create natural sweetness in desserts without the need for too much added sugar. The sugar added to the fruit filling in Colwin’s Nantucket cranberry pie recipe is a quarter cup, because cranberries are so tart. A single tablespoon works in this recipe, and even that could be optional if you preferred.
There are other reasons why the cake is a more wholesome alternative to some of the rich desserts on offer at this time of year. I made it with light spelt flour, for whole grain goodness and nutty flavor. It’s got barely any refined sugar, thanks to maple syrup as a sweetener. The cake is moist enough (and the cherries add enough extra moisture) to only need a quarter cup of oil for the whole recipe, so it’s relatively low in fat (for cake). And the delicious cherry walnut layer means that it’s rich in antioxidants and also boasts some Omega-3 fatty acids.
Not bad, for dessert.
My version isn’t quite as simple as Colwin’s, but it still might be the most low maintenance holiday dessert you make this year. You can use fresh, canned, or frozen cherries, and you can make it a day in advance of serving. It’s my new favorite, healthful, fruit-inspired Thanksgiving dessert, and I can’t wait to start sharing it (so far, I’ve been keeping it all to myself).
Wholesome Sweet Cherry Upside Down Cake
- 2 cups fresh frozen, or canned Rainier or sweet cherries, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 tablespoon brown or coconut sugar optional
- 1 3/4 cups light spelt whole wheat pastry, or all unbleached, all-purpose flour*
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup water
- 3/4 cup maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform cake pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the sides.
- Place the cherries, walnuts, and sugar in the bottom of the cake pan.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and powder, and salt. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the oil, water, maple syrup, and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until they're just combined (a few clumps is OK). Pour the cake batter over the cherries and walnuts.
- Transfer the cake pan to the oven. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the cake is golden and the top is firm and set. Allow the cake to cool for an hour before releasing it from the springform pan and using a plate or platter to invert it. Slice and serve.
This post is sponsored by the Northwest Cherry Growers, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness and consumption of regionally-grown stone fruits. It promotes and educates about stone fruits from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana orchards, and its website is packed with information about cherries, including varieties, growing season, and health benefits (this infographic is especially informative, and it includes a cherry pie recipe that you can make with your favorite vegan crust).
There will be a lot more holiday cooking to savor in the coming weeks, but I’m pretty happy to be starting with dessert. A dessert that doesn’t stress me out now, and wouldn’t stress me out even if I had a giant feast to prepare, or were operating under a time crunch. I have a feeling this one might come to my rescue often during the holiday season—and the fact that it’s packed with healthful fruit will make me feel good about its arrival.
I’ve got another stress-free Thanksgiving option (this one on the savory spectrum) coming your way later this week.
This post is sponsored by the Northwest Cherry Growers. All opinions are my own, and I love filling my dessert plate with the goodness sweet cherries! Thanks for your support.