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.”
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.
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.