Blood Orange Polenta Upside-down Cake

There's an on-going challenge I have with myself every winter: how many blood oranges can I eat before they go out of season? I'm my sole competition, making it a poor spectator sport, but it's a very enjoyable few months in terms of culinary merit. The anthocyanin-rich citrus find their way into many of my meals this time of year--from savory applications like blood orange and fennel salads to a sweet and slightly biting vinaigrette made by trading out the usual vinegar for a bit of juice. And while they're always excellent eaten out of hand, their intense, untamed flavor make them the perfect ingredient for a variety of deserts. So far this winter, I've baked slices of the fruit in an almond flour batter, or for another recipe, painstakingly sectioned a pile of blood oranges with a too-dull knife, then folded a butter-rich tart crust around the sugar-dusted segments. There's a large jar that will be sitting in a dark cabinet in my kitchen for the next forty days that's full of blood oranges, grapefruit and Meyer lemons, all of the citrus soaking in white wine and vodka--along with some vanilla bean, sugar and chamomile--for my own riff on vin de pamplemousse.

mmmmm . . . dessert . . .
mmmmm . . . dessert . . .
Willy Blackmore

But one of the best and easiest recipes I've made thus far was a Blood Orange Polenta Upside-down Cake from a recent issue of Bon Appétit. Like an Italian, citrus version of tarte tatin, the cake is cooked upside down, in a skillet, with slices of blood orange--skin and all--melding with a caramel sauce against the bottom side of the pan, a simple batter made with a bit of polenta covering the fruit, sugar and butter mix. Once baked, the cake is flipped out onto a plate, revealing an impressive mosaic of caramel-burnished, deeply colored orange slices.
The recipe called for a few tablespoons of polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal, but I found that when made with polenta the cake had a bit too crunchy of a texture, the shards of corn unable to take on enough moisture to soften adequately during baking.  Switching out the polenta for a fine-ground cornmeal gives the cake the nutty, toasty note of corn without putting your teeth at peril. And as someone who feels that caramel can always have a bit more salt in it, I gave the sauce a few shakes in addition to the seasoning included in the batter. Food and Wine suggests serving the cake with a crème fraîche whipped cream, but a simple dollop of the stuff does the trick just fine.

Blood Orange Upside-down Cake
(adapted fromBon Appétit)

Serves: 6

Cake:
7 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus 3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
3 unpeeled blood oranges, preferably from the farmers' market or someone's backyard
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus salt to taste for the caramel
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
6 tablespoons milk

1.    Preheat oven to 350°F
2.    Put 6 tablespoons sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a cast iron skillet. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves, then increase heat until the syrup boils, cooking until it attains a light amber color. The caramel will develop further in the oven, so you don't want to push it to a lovely dark amber quite yet.
3.     Take the pan of the heat and add 2 tablespoons butter into caramel, stirring to incorporate. Season with a good pinch to salt.
4.    Cut off the ends of each orange, then slice them into 1/8-inch-thick rounds, picking out any visible seeds. Lay them artfully on top of the caramel or just simply scatter them--just make sure the slices cover the bottom of the pan completely.
5.    Mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
6.    In an electric mixer or blender, cream the 3/4 cup  of sugar and the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter, along with the vanilla.
7.    Add the egg yolks to the creamed butter and sugar, one by one, allowing each to be fully incorporated.
8.    Add a third of the mixed dry ingredients, followed by half of the milk. Proceed with another third, the last of the milk, then the last of the dry ingredients.
9.    Beat the egg whites with the remaining1 tablespoon sugar until stiff peaks form.
10.    Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter, gently incorporating them, then continue to fold in the remaining egg whites.
11.    Gently spoon the batter over the oranges, taking care not to jostle them around too much. Smooth out the top of the batter with the back of a spoon.
12.    Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife stuck into the center comes out clean.
13.    Let the cake stand in the skillet for 10 minutes, then loosen it by running a butter knife around the edge.
14.    Find a plate or tray large enough to completely cover the skillet. Holding the two together, carefully turn them over, allowing the cake to flip out of the skillet and onto the platter.
15.    Serve with crème fraîche


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