This mid-year period in Southern California can be both amazing and confusing. If you’ve ever spent time outside of SoCal, September usually means a chance to put on a sweater and enjoy cooler weather. But as everyone who lives here (and still wears T-shirts and shorts) knows, that feeling is weeks away for us. On the other hand, you’ll get a unique California experience when you see peaches and apples, corn and winter squash – a combination of premium summer ingredients and classic fall – popping up at farmers markets . And it was so creatively inspired that I set out to come up with a cake that recorded the “season”.
I obsess over stone fruit all summer: peaches, cherries, purple plums and sour greens. And when the temptation finally subsided, all I wanted were pears, apples, and persimmons. But this nominal time allows me to focus on the gods less among the fruit giants of the main seasons. Figs and dates are sweet and floral and tender, while passionfruit and kiwi come to balance all summer desserts or early fall baked goods with their brightness.
But my favorite is the grapes. And not just any grapes. I’m talking about the aromatic Thomcords garnet, which is covered in fragrance. A cross between a Concord grape and a Thompson seedless grape, Thomcords is a California specialty that possesses all the bold flavors of Concords but without the giant seeds. That means you can cook and bake with Thomcords more easily than with Concords. I’m not a big fan of grapes and rarely snack on them (I’m stuck somewhere with fruit salad being the only option for extra nutrition), but when Thomcords are in season, I eat them with my hands.
This year, I wanted to take my favorite grapes and combine them into a simple cake that I could eat for breakfast (best time for pie). Instead of using a plain vanilla flavored flour, I wanted to make one with corn to increase the quality from summer to fall. I’ve tested several iterations of a corn tortilla using raw, blanched, and even pureed corn, but all have resulted in the cake having the texture I wanted. While I like to taste fresh corn of the season, I find that good cornmeal brings out the best flavor without adding any weird textures to the cake.
As for the grapes, I tried mixing them into the dough both raw and cooked, but found that they fell to the bottom or broke into soggy pockets in the cooked pie – not quite the season celebration I was expecting. So I opted to make an upside-down pie instead, cooking the grapes until their juices thicken and slushy, then topping them with a simple tortilla flour. And while it may seem like an easy task, with all the “simple” things, the little details make a bigger difference than you think.
First, grapes are easy to cook with just a little sugar, but their juices are too liquid, or worse, too sticky and jam-like to not become as chewy as the skin of a fruit after baking. I find that adding a little cornstarch at the end helps thicken the water just enough while giving the fruit a soft and fluffy quality. And instead of using water with cornstarch, I found that whole milk – just 1 tablespoon – enhanced the density of cooked grapes and gave the sweet lean fruit a bit of a punch. The final key to the fruity coating is the lemon zest – a small amount really awakens the sourness and aromatic flavors of the grapes.
Then came the cake. I love really simple mixers and whisks, most of all because who wants to break a stand mixer when a bowl and a whisk will do? So instead of using a dough that requires whipping the buttercream and sugar together first, I added melted butter and lots of baking powder to make the cake rise like a regular whipped cream. And instead of the usual white granulated sugar, I used light brown sugar for a bittersweet taste like molasses to perfectly balance the sweet corn and grape flavors.
But the real success of this cake is in the way you handle the cornmeal. When you bake with cornmeal, the finished cake can get a little crispy from the coarse grains, especially in a batter like this one that isn’t too wet. Key: Add the cornstarch to the wet ingredients first to let the dough rise and absorb the moisture – just like you would when you soak beans or rice before cooking – so that the dough rises evenly, resulting in soft and crunchy buns.
Other recipes for tortillas and similar cakes I’ve seen mix the whole dough together so the cornstarch expands, but then you waste the leavening power of baking powder and soda because both are baked. activated when combined with liquid. I simply mix the cornstarch into the wet ingredients, let it sit for 15 minutes, then add the flour and yeast to keep the latter fresh and strong to increase the suitability of my cakes.
The result was everything I had hoped for. The tart, fresh and chewy fruit sits on top of a sweet cornbread, soft and rich but not heavy. I ate it as a hand-held seasoning for breakfast, in the afternoon to take it home with me and serve it as a simple dessert after dinner parties, along with a scoop of unsweetened whipped cream. Grapes are a welcome change from the more familiar stars of summer and fall, a way to appreciate the fruit that unfolds season after season.
Get the formula:
Time2 hours, virtually unattended
https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-09-22/easy-grape-corn-upside-down-cake Easy upside-down cake combines Thomcord grapes, cornmeal