Sweet Pepper Upside-Down Cake

Saffron and corn cake cake with cinnamon and caramelized bell peppers

I got an email the other day from one of those high school renunion websites, and as I was marking it as spam, it occurred to me that it’s been nearly fifteen years since I graduated from high school. It feels like another lifetime, and yet I feel too young to be that old. In high school I was the quiet type that never really got into too much trouble. Sure, I served my fair share of time in detention (I was even suspended once), but I was never the rebellious experimental type. You know, those kids that always questioned authority, and would smoke, snort or otherwise ingest anything, just to see what would happen?

Times have changed and I’m not the quite the straight-laced nerd that I once was, but I’m still not much of a rebel. Get me around food though, and all bets are off. In the kitchen, I become that hormone fueled, out-of-control teenager that will violate taboo, just to be different. It’s why the food that shows up on this blog seems so eclectic. I can’t imagine sticking to one cuisine, and the thought of following directions out of a book is tantamount to sitting through a four hour standardized test.

Perhaps as a Yin to the Yang of my savoury chocolate pasta from last week, I decided that it’s high time that bell peppers be used in a dessert. I was having guests over and knew I should be making something safer, but my inner voice compelled me to make this cake. “Besides,” I told myself, “anyone who get’s invited over to dinner at my place knows the inherent risks associated with the invitation anyway.”

Sweet bell pepper upside-down cake

This red bell pepper and saffron upside-down cake turns notions about what should and shouldn’t go into a dessert upside down. The roasted bell peppers absorb the caramelized sugar and butter, taking on a slightly chewy caramel texture, while retaining their sweet smoky essence. The sweet and spicy cinnamon compliments the lightly acidic pepper, and the saffron not only punches up the colour, but it also adds a marvelous meaty flavour that harmonized beautifully with the peppers.

Saffron from Catalunya

For the batter, I used masa harina in place of flour because it makes a nice dense crumb, while remaining paradoxically tender due to the utter lack of gluten. To play up the corn texture, I added some polenta, which gives the cake a nice bite. As a whole, the flavours, textures and colours work beautifully together, and if you can get over the oddity of seeing a vegetable between your scoop of ice cream and your cake, it actually tastes pretty good.

So the next time you’re feeling a little uninspired in the kitchen, I urge you to tap into those rebellious instincts that have laid dormant for so many years and try something wild! You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Sweet Pepper Upside-Down Cake

2 large red bell peppers
1/2 tsp saffron
1 Tbs water
4 Tbs butter
3/4 C packed light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

1 C masa harina
1 Tbs polenta
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 C light brown sugar
1/4 C sugar
2 eggs room temp
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 C milk

Chop the top and bottom off the bell peppers and quater the pepper lengthwise, trimming any seeds or white membrane from the inside. Lay the strips of bell pepper on a baking sheet skin side up. Move your oven rack to the top position and turn the broiler on high. Put the sheet of bell peppers directly under the heating element and broil until the skins are charred almost solid black. This gives the peppers a nice smokey flavour. Once charred, put them in a ziplock bag, and seal the top and allow to cool. The steam escaping from the hot pepper dislodges the charred skin so it is easy to peel.

Crumble the saffron into a bowl and cover with the water.

Peel the roasted peppers and cut them into thin triangular strips. Butter the bottom of a 9″ round cake pan and lay the strips down in a circular pattern. It’s okay if there are small gaps between the peppers. Make the caramel by adding the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a pot over medium high heat. Cook until the sugar is melted (there shouldn’t be any granules of sugar left), but be careful not to burn it. Pour the mixture over the prepared bell peppers. The hot mixture may spatter, so please be careful.

Turn the oven on to 350 degrees F and move the oven rack to the middle position.

Whisk the masa harina, polenta salt and baking powder together in a bowl. Put the butter, light brown sugar and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until incorporated. Add the vanilla, saffron and soaking water and continue beating then slowly add the milk until fully incorporated. Add the flour mixture in all at once, then beat until smooth.

Pour the batter in to the pan with the peppers and caramel and flatten off the top. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool enough to touch. Put a plate on top of the pan and flip it over to invert the cake onto the plate. If any of the peppers stay stuck to the pan, just remove them and put them back into place on the cake. Allow the cake to cool to room temperature then slice and serve.

  • http://www.rookie-cookie.com/ rookie cookie

    Amazing combination. Really, very brilliant. I am so glad you are risky and “snort” in the kitchen, just to see what will happen.

  • eboast

    Wow, just wow. Looks amazing!

  • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

    It makes perfect sense! Pepper is a fruit!

    This will be a fun project to try my hands on this summer as I'm planting lots of bell pepper this year.

    By the way, Marc, I don't believe your “I was never the rebellious/experimental type” thing one bit. :) Avocado frosting. Beet cupcakes. Chocolate pasta. Need I say more?

  • http://twitter.com/atablefortwo Billy (ATableForTwo)

    i am having a cook-off challenge dinner party coming up where we need to use vegetable in our dessert. This is just perfect! thanks for the recipe!

  • zenchef

    I agree with Leela. You're a revolutionary in the kitchen. A bit like che guevarra but with pots and pans instead of guns, and with great results!

    You're lucky there's no blogger event this week or i would have asked you to bring me a slice.

  • jentinyurbankitchen

    Excellent post! And I totally agree with you – why stick to recipes to the book? Really does feel like a loooooong exam. Thank God those days are over! Thanks for the creative dish. I love red peppers and this definitely is quite creative!

    I've actually been thinking about doing something with chocolate & pasta for a long time as well. Maybe this will inspire me to try something daring and different!

  • http://fivestarfoodie.com/ 5 Star Foodie

    A very unique and extraordinary savory cake! I love the idea and I have all the ingredients on hand to make this right away!

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    Marc…you are one mad, creative chef! Never in a million years would I have thought to combine peppers in a sweet dessert. I love all the additions including the masa and saffron. Amazing!

  • http://www.bearheadsoup.blogspot.com/ Deb

    The cake looks beautiful! It also sounds really interesting. I definitely want to try making this one! Am new to your blog; love the pics and the recipes!

  • joannova

    Pure genius Marc. I love it!

  • http://www.sense-serendipity.com/ Divina

    Marc, this is another ingenious and brilliant creation from you. It is second nature for you to create wonderful dishes like this.

  • http://twitter.com/wokstar Eleanor Hoh

    Guess you're a 'late bloomer' with a wonderful sense of humor! The texture reminds me of Sugee cake my mom makes. Agree about following recipe. Fantastic AGAIN! Thnx for pushing us to go beyond.

  • http://www.sospiffy.com/ Girl Japan

    Masa gave your cake such a nice high yellow color, and I love red peppers, they have such an intense flavor and I just love how you incorporated something that you wouldn't normally use in a cake.

  • thelacquerspoon

    Woow, love the colour! The warm hue makes me a bit nostalgic with my memory of school days back :)

  • http://twitter.com/piercival Mike Pierce

    I used to think you were an über talented, creative and relevant chef; now it's becoming apparent that you have yet to hit your full stride. You knocked me over with this one, and something tells me this is just the start.

  • http://colloquialcooking.com Colloquial Cook

    Atta boy 😀 That's my Marc : taboo-breakin' cabbage-fermentin' kitchen Indiana Jones. Yeeha.

  • http://trissalicious.com/ Trissa

    Marc – this is such a unique idea! I just love the use of bell peppers here. Keep on tapping into your rebellious instinct – am totally enjoying it!

  • http://www.chichoskitchen.blogspot.com Cherine

    that's an original cake!

  • iatebrisbane

    How remarkable! This is pure genius! I would have never thought of this – I love the idea of using fruits and vegetables in their 'opposing' sweet/savoury roles and finding they work really well – Capsicum is actually a fruit after all!
    My favourite sweet recipe with vegetables in it is chocolate beetroot cake


  • http://simmerdownfood.com/ noëlle {simmer down!}

    Just curious, when you invent recipes like this, do you base it off another recipe or just wing it for the ratios, cook times, etc? For something like pasta it's pretty easy to freestyle, but for a cake I think I'd have to reference another somewhat similar recipe to give me a starting point…

  • http://kitchensidecar.blogspot.cm/ katiek

    hot dang! this is fun. and exciting looking. i would wonder if there needed to be any tartness to balance the sweetness. just trying to imagine the flavors…

  • http://www.thenervouscook.com The Nervous Cook

    Oh my word, this looks like it would be absolutely incredible to bite into first thing when it's out of the oven. I love the unexpected combo of sweet peppers and saffron.

    Do you think this would also work as a kind of bread, with the peppers more integrated into the cake, maybe paired with a special butter? Or do I just think that because it looks like the world's most delicious corn bread?

  • http://www.myonlinemeals.com/ kathy

    Wow! That something I haven't tried yet. Bellpepper in my cake. hmm… I will try this sometime. Thanks for posting this. :-)

  • http://whisk-kid.blogspot.com/ Kaitlin

    What an incredible idea. I'd love to try this!

  • http://www.bestbreadmachines.org/cuisinart-cbk-200-review-read-this-before-buying.html best bread machines

    Very unique and creative idea! Nice pictures too.

  • norecipes

    Good question… In the baking realm I actually have a lot of failures
    because I don't use recipes, but I've learned a few tricks. For
    instance I like baking with gluten free flours (like masa harina)
    since it's impossible to over mix it, so I can start with the wet
    ingredients (eggs, butter, milk, etc) and add flour until it's the
    right texture without having to worry about ending up with a hockey
    puck. I also tend to stick to a few styles of cake bases like a
    meringue based sponge or a denser chemically leavened cake like this
    one. Hope that helps!

  • norecipes

    There's a bit of tartness coming from the bell peppers, but you could
    add lemon juice to the caramel if you want it more tart.

  • norecipes

    That's a great idea. One thing I learned from this is that the sweet
    bell pepper taste works well in a dessert, so I've been thinking about
    other ways to use it. A cinnamon swirl bread with roasted bell peppers
    should be delicious.

  • http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/ lisaiscooking

    I like carrots and zucchini in cakes, so I would be willing to try red bell pepper! The colors are amazing, and the saffron sounds delicious.

  • http://mylittleexpatkitchen.blogspot.com/ my little expat kitchen

    This is a truly innovative recipe. I haven't seen anything like this before. I think I'll give this a try.

  • http://www.6bittersweets.com/ Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets

    A gorgeous cake if I ever saw one! Thanks for inspiring us with your adventurous creations :).

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  • http://www.weareneverfull.com we are never full

    loving a bit of the spanish influence in this… pequillo peppers and saffron (ok, so they are reg. red bell, but it's similar). very nice – i'd totally love to try this.

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  • citraetcetera

    this is a great idea – wonder if I could not find masa harina where I live, what do you suggest to use instead? can’t wait to try this recipe. thanks for your fantastic idea!

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Thanks! You could substitute wheat flour, but I think the proportions
      might be a little different. You might have to experiment a little to
      figure out the right amount.

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  • Loren

    This looks amazing, and I’m planning to make it for an all-pepper dinner this weekend! Should the polenta be dry or prepared? Thanks!

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Thanks! The polenta should be dry. It gives a little texture to the cake.

  • BEL

    that s so cool … im looking for a unique recipes for our food experimental, can u help me ? do you know some recipes for rose petals ?

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      I don’t really know of any recipes for rose petals, but you can use rose water in a lot of desserts. It goes especially well with raspberries and lychees.

      Marc Matsumoto
      Twitter: @norecipes

  • Celine

    I tried this recipe and it is very interesting. The taste of the pepper is really softened by the caramel. I replaced Masa Harina by classic wheat flour as I could not find any in Sainsbury’s. And it worked out fine. I surprised everyone with this so thank you very much!

  • kpayne

    This is the worst recipe ever just nasty. I was trying it for the fair and just tasted it tonight it was terrible just nasty. I say its not a recipe thats worth wasting 20 bucks on to buy a stupid spice, you may never use again.

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Hi kpayne, sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the dish. I could see how this isn’t a flavor profile that will work for everyone, but one thing I wanted to clarify is whether the you had a problem with the recipe and it didn’t turn out right, or if you just didn’t like the taste? If it was the former, I’m happy to try and figure out what went wrong if you can give me a bit more detail. As for the saffron, it’s great in paella (http://norecipes.com/paella/) and biryani (http://norecipes.com/chicken-biryani/).

  • Zahid

    Please post the temperature at which this should be baked.

  • Sara

    Hi instead of 1/4 cup sugar, honey is going to be used. Don’t know how to use raspberries but they are going in!

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Great idea, you can probably just stick the raspberries in the bottom of the pan along with the roasted peppers and caramel.

  • Marion

    I made this for a work event where we were challenged to bake a cake including a vegetable. It gained the most votes for “innovative use of a vegetable” but everyone agreed the taste was awful. More than half of the cake was diverted to chicken feed. At the time of writing the chickens are still alive but I’m not sure they are cheeping as brightly as usual.
    Definitely not recommended


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