Upside down cakes are one of my favorite types of cakes to make, mostly because they are an easy way to impress. In an upside down cake, the fruit is layered on the bottom of the pan along with sugar, and a simple, fluffy cake batter is poured on top. Once it’s baked, the cake is inverted, and what was once the bottom of the cake becomes a gorgeously syrupy, fruity top. What could be simpler?
American upside down cakes are traditionally made with pineapple and cherries, but I gave that ’50s take on the cake a seasonal, Middle Eastern twist by using blood oranges, saffron and semolina flour in the batter. Blood oranges are typically in season from January until early spring, and they are some of my favorite citrus fruits to bake with: bright, not too sweet and seriously flavorful. Here they add a vibrant pop of color to the cake.
As for the saffron, you might already know it by its notoriously expensive reputation. Derived from the crocus flower, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, which makes sense considering the difficulty involved in harvesting it. But fear not: While Indian Kashmiri and Iranian saffron are definitely pricey, the more commonly available Spanish saffron is affordable, easy to find and thankfully still delicious and flavorful.
In this cake, the sweet, floral and honey-like saffron threads are infused into sugar along with zest from the blood orange. The sugar turns extra fragrant, and when combined with orange blossom water and the semolina flour yields a cake that is intensely flavored, crumby and dense in the best way possible. The oranges on top are syrupy and candy-like (keeping the rind on, thinly sliced, adds even more flavor and fragrance) and best of all, it comes together in under an hour, just in time for an afternoon cup of tea.
Note: You may keep the rind of the orange on or remove it. Regular oranges can be substituted for the blood oranges.
1/3 cup raw or turbinado sugar
2 blood oranges, very thinly sliced, seeds removed
1-1/2 cups semolina flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp. finely grated blood orange zest
1 pinch saffron threads
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 Tbsp. orange blossom water
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1. Make the infused sugar: Combine the blood orange zest and saffron threads with the granulated sugar and use your hands to rub the zest and saffron into the sugar until it is fragrant and slightly colored by the zest and saffron. Set aside until needed.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 10-inch cake pan. Dust the turbinado sugar over the bottom of the greased pan. Arrange the orange slices in circles over the sugar, pressing them closely together.
3. Make the cake batter: Whisk flour, infused sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add eggs, buttermilk, orange blossom water and butter; mix until no dry spots remain (a few lumps are OK; do not overmix).
5. Pour batter over oranges in pan and bake until top is golden brown and cake pulls away from sides of pan, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool 5 minutes before inverting and turning out onto a rack or a large plate.
6. Serve slices with labne and saffron honey.