Baking challenge: upside down world – chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week one (cake week) of series three: upside-down cake.

To many people, now, not least myself, I think the world has become a strange upside-down place. A lot of certainties we have relied on have been upended: everything from the inevitability of capitalism as the best system to secure rewards for all; the progression towards a more tolerant society; the place of Europe in the world; the inexorable rise of property prices; and the fact that each generation is healthier and wealthier than the previous, have been thrown into doubt. Some of these disruptions have of course bubbled under the surface for decades, unnoticed or perhaps ignored out of expediency, but it is destabilising to have so many social, political and environmental schisms exposed all at once.

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As much as we may resist an upside-down world, in the culinary realm, the cooking together of fruit and sugar to form the base of a cake, over which batter is poured and baked, produces a much more agreeable effect. The resulting cake is then flipped over to present the fruit at the top. The most classic of all the upside-down cakes is, I think the pineapple upside-down cake: rings of tinned pineapple cooked in a pale and insipid caramel and decorated with artificially dyed, lurid maraschino cherries. Just looking at it is enough to make me feel delicate: I grew up eating home-grown pineapples picked out of our back garden (they tended to be tiny and ferociously spined), and all tinned and artificial food was non grata. The pineapple upside-down cake in its classic form represents all the food my yoga teacher mother tried to keep me away from as a child, albeit with limited success. Still, some lessons have stuck, and while I am happy to eat tinned tomatoes and beans, I have not yet come around to either sweetcorn or pineapple out of a can (to be clear, we did not grow corn in the garden).

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So when it came to making my own upside-down cake I knew I would go for a different fruit. I ended up making this cake for my dear friend Juliet’s birthday, and this inspired me as to the final flavour combination. Juliet makes a delectable bread and butter pudding with bananas, walnuts and chocolate chips; it’s a buttery, bronzey, gooey-in-the-middle, crisp-and-crunchy-with-sugar-round-the-top, studded-with-chocolate kind of thing, so delicious that Juliet appeared with it in the BBC’s The One Show. So the upside-down cake I made for her was basically her bread and butter pudding in cake form: bananas cooked in caramel, and a banana cake base through which chocolate and walnuts had been swirled. The resulting cake was absolutely enormous, and carting it from SW to Central London for our brunch at Dirty Bones was pretty hairy; in fact the top did crack a little, which I don’t think would have happened had it remained stationary. But the staff at Dirty Bones were really kind and took the cake off my hands almost as soon as I arrived, and returned it at the end of our absolutely filthily, gorgeously, stupidly indulgent meal of deep fried chicken atop waffles (absolutely not something I ever thought I’d eat but UTTERLY DELICIOUS OMG), all ablaze with the candles I’d brought. Although it was a very good cake, and really reflected the flavours of Juliet’s amazing bread and butter pudding, the three of us at brunch could barely manage a tiny slice each. The moral of the story is don’t try to each cake after eating chicken and waffles; the physics of it just doesn’t work. (I did offer it to the kind Dirty Bones waiting staff, though most of them declined. Possibly they had just eaten the waffles too).

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After brunching on eggs, chicken, waffles and a shot glass of syrup, I think moderation when it came to the cake was to be expected

Now, classically an upside-down cake is made by cooking up a caramel and adding the fruit to cook in an overproof pan, over which the cake batter is poured, and the whole thing is popped in the oven. For this recipe, however, the bananas are cooked in a pan (I used my trusty cast iron skillet) and then transferred to a springform pan. While I appreciate that bananas might be a fruit which is a little difficult to extract, this transferring method did result in a lot of the caramel oozing out, which was a shame. The caramel is made with maple syrup so it also wasn’t a particularly cheap waste. If making this again I would be tempted to try it out as an all-in-one-pan method.

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You will need a mix of firmer, just-ripe and soft, very ripe bananas for this recipe; the former for the caramelised topping, the latter for the cake itself.

Chocolate Banana Walnut Upside-Down Cake
The recipe is from the January 2014 issue of Delicious magazine, with a few very tiny changes by me

For the caramel and banana topping

  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 70g soft light brown sugar
  • 80ml maple syrup
  • 4-5 just ripe bananas (yellow, with no brown spots), peeled and sliced in half lengthways

For the cake

  • 200g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra to grease
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g light or dark brown soft sugar (the recipe calls for light muscovado but I used dark brown soft sugar as that’s what we had in the house)
  • 3 medium free-range eggs
  • 300g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 150g dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
  • 50g walnuts, chopped
  • 120ml milk (the recipe called for whole, but I used the perennial semi-skimmed we have in the house, though I wouldn’t go so far as skimmed…)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a 23cm springform cake tin.
  2. For the banana-caramel topping, put the 50g butter, brown sugar and maple syrup in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is thick and golden. Pour the syrup into the cake tin. Arrange the sliced bananas, cut-side down, over the base of the tin. They will magically fit together like concentric puzzle pieces.
  3. Toast the walnuts by popping in the oven for 6-8 minutes, until golden brown. Remove and place in a bowl or on a plate to let cool.
  4. For the cake, put the 200g butter and sugar in a bowl and beat until pale and creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift in the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt, then gently fold through the mixture. Mix in the mashed bananas, chocolate chunks, walnut pieces and enough milk to reach a dropping consistency – the mixture should drop heavily from the spoon when lifted (you may not need to use all the milk). Dollop the batter evenly over the bananas and smooth the top with a spatula.
  5. Put the cake on a baking tray to catch any leaking syrup, then bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden on top and a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave in the tin for 5 minutes to cool slightly, then invert onto a large serving plate.
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2 thoughts on “Baking challenge: upside down world – chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake

  1. Who doesn’t love a good upside-down banana cake? Seriously?? I really like how you sliced the bananas on the bias instead of chunks like I’ve only ever thought to do. 😛 Gives your cake such pretty and delicate twist!

    1. It is a really pretty effect, isn’t it? It is quite unique – I’ve seen a lot of cakes where the bananas are cut in round slices. The fun part is how easily all the halved bananas fit together…like an amazing easy natural jigsaw puzzle

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