Peach and Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake

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I made a cake for you and for summer. There were peaches sitting out on the counter that would not be ignored. You could smell them before seeing them.

I’ve wanted to make a cornmeal skillet cake for a while, and this summery number hit the spot. Hello June! It’s a low-maintenance cake that turns out beautifully. It only bakes for about 20 minutes. The crumb is tender, and yet it’s heavy with the perfume of early-summer peaches, herbs, and brown 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. I’d never done this with a skillet cake, and though cast iron is heavy and I thought we might break a plate, the cake fell right out of the skillet and plopped perfectly onto a plate. Not that I was too worried for it. At the bottom of the skillet, the peach slices floated in browned butter, almost syrupy and swirled around the cast iron sides.

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The original recipe calls for lavender. I didn’t have any, but I wanted something a touch more savory anyway. Lavender seemed a little precious for a cornmeal cake. Our balcony herbs are starting to thrive again (apparently they grow when you water them…) and I decided on thyme. We’ll save the cilantro for a future cocktail. You could probably play around with other herbs as well. Rosemary could be good.

The recipe also 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.

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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 we’d make for my abuelito.

It is a perfect cake for summer. Summer! I’m a July baby. I have to embrace summer for everything that it is, sweltering, humid, rainy Florida afternoons and all. Think about the ice cream and grilled dinners. The slowdown of time. Tomatoes. And the feeling that school’s out, even now. Stick a candle in this and have a slice to summer. I could call it a birthday cake. No frosting or sprinkles needed. It’s even in my favorite color, orange! It’s all I ever wanted (except from grades 6 through 12, when all I wanted was a Carvel cake).

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Vanilla ice cream would be totally fine next to a slice of this cornmeal cake. No problem. But it doesn’t need it. The peaches hold their own. Maybe just a little whipped cream if you’d like to dress it up.

This cake is at home on a Sunday afternoon. Today’s leftovers were tempting for breakfast.

It’s gonna be a great summer (and let me know if we’re ready to declare it the Summer of George). Don’t worry about the mosquitoes or frizzy hair. Relish in long days and sunlight well into making-dinner time. Think of beach days and happy hours on porches. Get a tan and your favorite sandals. Let’s make this cake again soon.

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peach and cornmeal upside-down cake

You could use fine cornmeal if you’d prefer the texture. Feel free to switch up the thyme for another herb.

11 tablespoons (5 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 medium ripe peaches, pitted and sliced into 3/4-inch wedges
1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal or polenta
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, 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°F. 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 your 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 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.

Serves 8. Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.

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