A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

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“1-2-3-4…”

“Like the Feist song!”

My son, who had just asked me about the recipe for that day, reeallly likes the singer Feist.

“It’s a 1-2-3-4 Cake.”

Blink, blink, blink.

“I’ll tell you more when everyone gets here.”

Once we were all assembled around the table, I explained that the numbers referred to the amounts, measured in cups, of the ingredients in a basic yellow cake: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.

“This was a simple cake recipe that you learned to make while at your mother’s knee. You didn’t even need to be able to read. The baker would just use whatever cup they had–big or small–just as long as they used that same cup to measure all of their ingredients.”

The origin of the recipe is uncertain–it seems to be just one of those things that turned up, handwritten, in the margins of cookbooks or jotted down on scraps of paper, though published versions of the recipe date to the late 1800’s. At the end of that century however, American cooking entered the age of science.

“Have you guys ever heard of home economics?”

They hadn’t.

The home economics movement gained steam when American families began to consume more goods and services than they produced. People were eager to buy items that they had previously grown, made, or processed at home. Proponents of the field saw a need to train women to be more efficient household managers and to guide them in their new roles as purchasers.

“So things like cooking schools became popular.”

The first of these was the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston. Mary Johnson Lincoln became the principal of the school and eventually authored six cookbooks. She was self-taught, having started cooking in earnest at age 7 when, after her father’s death, she helped supplement the household income. Later, when her own husband fell ill, she was again forced to join the workforce.

This information prompted a whole slew of “whys?”: Why were only the women expected to cook? Why couldn’t they do some other kind of work? You get the idea.

Mrs. Lincoln lamented women’s lack of scientific knowledge in the kitchen, and in her Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking, sought to provide not only recipes, but “all the chemical and physiological knowledge that is necessary for a clear understanding of the laws of health, so far as they are involved in the science of cookery.”

Before Lincoln’s cookbook, American recipes called for amounts like butter “the size of an egg,” a “teacup” of milk, or a “soup spoon” of cream. She was the first to use standardized measurements and to list the ingredients in their order of use.

Mary Lincoln wrote her recipes so that they “explained, illustrated, and reiterated for the inexperienced and the careless,” and afforded a “word of caution for those who seem always to have the knack of doing the wrong thing.” In other words, she endeavored to eliminate the chance of failure in cooking by also furnishing a practical and scientific “reason for every step taken.”

We were reminded of Malinda Russell’s instruction-free Sour Cream Cake recipe: “We could have used a few more details on that one.”

Following in Mrs. Lincoln’s footsteps was Fannie Farmer. At age 16, Miss Farmer had had a paralytic stroke that left her bedridden and therefore unable to attend college. She enrolled in the Boston Cooking School at age 31, became a top student and eventually the school’s director.

The Boston Cooking School Book (aka The Fannie Farmer cookbook), published in 1896, is possibly the most well-known and most influential of all American cookbooks. Like her predecessor, Farmer focused on nutrition and the science of cooking. While Fannie Farmer is generally considered the mother of level, standardized measurement, Mary Johnson Lincoln definitely paved the way.

“So what does all of this have to do with the 1-2-3-4 cake? Well, before standardization, you and your neighbor could bake the same cake recipe, but get different results–you might use this regular-sized coffee cup, while your neighbor used this much larger one.”

The kids all said they would go to their neighbor’s.

It was time to use these much talked about cups.

We quickly reviewed the basics for making a butter cake, then got to work.

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I pointed out that the 1-2-3-4 recipe was almost identical to the Choose Your Own Adventure cake we had designed, just doubled. Ratios. Pretty neat.

They were far more interested in testing the batter.

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While the cakes cooled, I whipped up some strawberry Swiss meringue buttercream. The kids had made this once before, so they allowed me to forge ahead on my own.

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We lopped the tops off the cakes and sandwiched them together with the pink speckled frosting.

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After a quick finish with the remaining buttercream, we sat down with our sunny looking slices. And unsurprisingly, those plates were clean before you could say 1-2-3-4.

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1-2-3-4 Cake, makes 2, 9″ round layers

The basic 1, 2, 3, 4 produces something more like a cookie; cooks knew from experience that they would need to add liquid to achieve a more cake-like texture. The earliest recipes called for sour milk and baking soda for leavening; baking powder was included once it was available.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

3 cups cake flour, (fluff it up with a spoon before measuring)

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter the pans. Place a round of parchment in the bottom and dust the inside of the pans with flour.

Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Cream the two together until light and fluffy, 2 – 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until each is incorporated. Scrape down the sides and the bottom of the mixing bowl.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium-size bowl. Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix on low until just incorporated. Add half of the milk, blend just until absorbed, then scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients, ending with the flour.

Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when lightly pressed in the center. They should be just pulling away from the sides of the pan and will be lightly browned.

Cool the pans on racks for 10 minutes, then run a thin knife or spatula around the edge of the pan to help release the cakes. Turn them out of the pans and place right side up on a rack to cool completely.

To frost and finish:

I used a half-batch of this standard Swiss meringue buttercream recipe.  Your butter should be cool room temperature before adding it to the completely cooled meringue. It might seem like the frosting is not coming together, but have patience, it will.

I’ve found that the easiest way to get a pronounced strawberry flavor is to use frozen berries, thawed overnight so that they are soft enough to mush into a puree. I used a 10 ounce bag for the above amount of buttercream. Reduce the puree over low heat until it resembles ketchup, (see the photo above). Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t scorch. You can add sugar to taste, but I generally don’t. Push the puree through a sieve and let cool completely before adding it to the buttercream. A squeeze of lemon juice will further enhance the berry flavor.

 

For more  in this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

 

 

Choose Your Own (Baking) Adventure

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“Can we just make something up?”

My son and I were standing in the kitchen chatting before our guests arrived.

“Well yeah, but you probably wouldn’t want to just throw a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it –”

He cut me off: “Oh I know — you would want to know what the different ingredients do first.”

This little conversation got me thinking about our recipe-less baking lesson for the day. We really wouldn’t be winging it — it would be more structured than that. It would be more like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that my kids enjoy: “If you choose scenario A, then turn to page X…”

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“You guys have baked a lot of things so far. And even though you’ve used the same ingredients over and over, the products have been very different.”

Together, they identified the familiar ingredients on the table: “flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt…and vanilla!”

“So what makes the end result so different if the ingredients are mostly the same?”

“How much of an ingredient you put in? Like maybe something more in a cake. Or something?”

“Yeah. Remember when we made ganache and talked about ratios? A ratio tells how much there is of one thing in comparison to something else. So if we wanted to make truffles with a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need if we had 1 pound of chocolate?”

“One-half of a pound?”

“Right. And say we wanted to make a ginormous batch of truffles and we had one hundred pounds of chocolate. How much cream would we need?”

“Fifty pounds?”

We looked at a chart I had drawn up that morning that showed some time tested ratios for batters and doughs.

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“Pie dough is known as 3-2-1 dough because it is made from about three parts flour to two parts fat and one part liquid. Now compare that to the ratios for a biscuit or scone, which are made the same way — by cutting the butter into the flour; those ratios are about three parts flour to one part fat and two parts liquid.”

“Oh, I see! Like the pancakes, they have the same amount of flour and eggs as a muffin, but there is just more liquid. Oh, and a little less fat.”

I explained that the ratios I had listed were very general, and that specific recipes are built from those ratios.

“Recipes are just ratios that somebody has adjusted to their own liking. There’s no reason you couldn’t change a recipe to your own liking, provided you didn’t mess with the ratios too much — you’d still want a cake to look like a cake and not a soupy pudding. If you know what the function of the ingredients are, there’s no reason you couldn’t just make up your own recipe.”

Which is what we would be doing. It would be a simple cake. But I suggested that we have a plan to work towards.

“These are the fruits that are in season right now.”

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There was immediate talk about lemon. Then tangerine. Somebody pointed out the blood oranges and I mentioned that my son and I had talked earlier of an upside-down blood orange cake. A couple of the kids really seized on that idea. There was also a suggestion of a blood orange layer cake with frosting, “maybe pink?”, that we had to reject because of time constraints. After some additional chatter about icings, we returned to the upside-down cake idea.

We looked at our chart again. The ratio for a cake was 1:1:1:1, flour to fat to sugar to egg.

“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”

Now pound cakes are delicious, but we wanted something a bit less dense. We would definitely need to tinker.

“Flour and egg whites are the protein ingredients. They provide the structure for the cake, while sugar and fat weaken the structure. In order to create a cake that will hold itself up yet still be moist and tender we have to have a balanced recipe. What do you think would happen if we had a lot of flour and not much fat?”

“Would the cake be dry?”

“Yeah, it would be dry and crumbly. And if we had way too much fat or sugar?”

This one was harder for them.

“It would be too sweet!”

“Yes, it would be way too sweet, but sugar doesn’t just make things sweet, it also contributes moisture, so the cake might be really wet and soggy inside. So to avoid that, one well-tested formula for this kind of cake would be to make sure the weight of the flour equals the weight of the sugar.”

I suggested we just measure out one and one-half cups of flour, (good for a cake that would serve eight people), and weigh it.

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“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”

They used a separate bowl to weigh an equal amount of sugar.

“Now, the weight of the eggs should be about the same weight as the fat.”

We had already decided that we didn’t want a pound cake, so we reduced the amount of butter to a reasonable four ounces, or one stick. Also, convenient.

They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.

“Three and one-half ounces! But that’s not the same as the butter.”

I explained that eggs have two parts: the whites provide structure, but also make baked goods dry, and yolks, which are mostly fat and therefore add moisture and help create a velvety texture.

“So we could add just one yolk. It would bring up the total weight of the eggs to equal that of the butter — actually it would be slightly over, but we don’t need it to be exactly the same.”

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“Next, we need the weight of the eggs plus the liquid to be about the same as the sugar.”

I suggested buttermilk just because I like the tanginess of it, but they voted unanimously against that and opted for milk.

“How much did the eggs weigh again?”

“Just under three and a quarter, ” I reminded them.

“So we need about four ounces of milk.”

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“We still have to think about leavening.”

We reviewed the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I even poured a little vinegar over some baking soda to remind them how the soda reacted with an acid to create carbon dioxide, which in turn would create bubbles in the cake batter. Those bubbles would grow larger in the the heat of the oven, thereby leavening the cake.

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But we had not chosen to use buttermilk, so we would use baking powder instead — one teaspoon per one cup of flour.

“Now sometimes recipes will have both baking powder and baking soda because the amount of soda necessary to react with the acidic ingredient, (one-quarter teaspoon soda per one-half cup of an acid), is not enough to leaven the total amount of batter.”

Finally, we added the flavor enhancers: vanilla, orange zest, and most importantly, salt.

“Baked goods aren’t very tasty without salt. I left it out of some muffins once and how were they?”

My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”

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We prepared our pan by buttering it, dusting it with flour, then sprinkling some granulated sugar over a round of parchment set in the bottom of the pan.

Then we got to review some knife skills.

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The kids each took a turn removing the peel from an orange.

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Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.

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They arranged the brilliant red wheels on top of the sugar in the pan.

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Finally it was time to mix the cake.

We creamed the butter with the sugar, salt, and orange zest until it was fluffy, then added the eggs a little at a time.

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We had a very conscientious baker on hand who scraped the bowl after every addition.

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Milk was added next.

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The flour and baking powder came last. We mixed those on the mixer just until there were a few streaks of flour, then we finished mixing it by hand.

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They each got to dip just one finger to taste the batter.

“Yum!”

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We could see lovely red and orange specks of zest in the fluffy batter.

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The top of the baked cake was nice and golden, but we were all more interested in seeing the bottom.

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It did not disappoint.

“Oooh, so pretty!”

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And they all agreed that the cake was delicious and beautiful. And theirs.

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Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake

7 oz all purpose flour, (about 1 1/2 c)

1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

1/2 t fine sea salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature

4 oz whole milk

1 t vanilla extract

zest of one blood orange

several blood oranges to slice

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 10″ cake pan, preferably springform or one with a removable bottom. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon or so of sugar over the parchment and arrange the blood orange slices on top of that.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

With the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and orange zest together until fluffy. Add the eggs, about one at a time, mixing well then scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla to the milk and then mix that into the butter and egg mixture. It will look curdled but will smooth out once you add the flour. Add the flour and mix on low until most of the flour is incorporated. Finish mixing by hand until no streaks of flour remain.

Gently spread the batter over the blood orange slices and level it as much as you can.

Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the center. A toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake will come out with moist crumbs attached.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, invert the cake, and remove the parchment.

 

Formulas for cake creations:

Butter = Sugar

Eggs = Fat

Eggs + Liquid = Sugar

Leavening guidelines:

1 t baking powder per cup of flour

1/4 t baking soda per cup of flour and 1/2 cup of acidic ingredient

 

 

 

 

 

Indigenous and Upside-Down

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“In-dij-en-es”

We were talking about cranberries.  I had asked if anyone knew why people ate cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  Besides being a tasty accompaniment to turkey that is.

No guesses.

“Indigenous means native; something that originates or occurs naturally in a particular place.”

I laid some cranberry info on them.  The cranberry, a relative of the blueberry and the huckleberry, is native to North America.  It grows in bogs from Virginia to Wisconsin, and extends all the way to the Pacific coast. Cranberries are harvested in the fall, from September to the beginning of November.

“So does that mean that the Indians and the Pilgrims ate them?”

We all agreed that since the Native Americans were using cranberries, it made sense that the Pilgrims would incorporate them into their harvest feast.

“This is kind of like a history lesson too.”

They had never eaten raw cranberries, so we cut some up to try.

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Yep, they were tart.  But several of the kids asked for more, and I had to cut them off lest we not have enough for our upside-down cake.

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We read through the recipe and I explained that, no we would not be eating the cake standing on our heads, but we would build it upside-down in the pan and then, once baked, flip the whole thing over.

“Ohhh.”

We started with 1/2 pound of room temperature butter.

“One pound of butter is the same as sixteen ounces, and is usually packaged in four sticks. So we need…”

“Two sticks!”

They noted that each was four ounces, and that each stick was marked in tablespoon increments.

“If we need four tablespoons for the topping, that would be…”

“1/2 a stick!”

“Which would be two ounces.”

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That went into a pan to melt.

We placed the rest of the butter into a bowl and used the wrappers to grease a springform pan.

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“I know the recipe calls for a 9-inch pan, but I don’t have one, so we’ll use this 10-inch.  Our cake will just be slightly shorter and should take slightly less time to bake.  I don’t want to use an 8-inch because I don’t want to risk overflowing the pan.  That would be sad.”

They all agreed.

Once the butter was melted, they added brown sugar and cinnamon and poured the crumby mixture into the pan.

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I asked them to pat it out evenly.

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I should have probably designated just one person for that job.

The whole cranberries went on top of that.

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“Our recipe calls for 2 cups.  Instead of measuring we can just look at the bag.  It says a serving size is 1/2 cup and that there are 4 servings in the bag.  So that would mean…”

“We use the whole bag.”

Except they had eaten a good portion of the first bag.  So we opened another and just made an even layer.

Back to making the cake batter.

They took turns creaming the butter, sugar, and salt together, and recalled why that butter needed to be at room temperature.

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Then, one egg yolk was whisked in.

“Can I just crack the egg into a bowl and scoop out the yolk?’

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Whole eggs were added, one at a time.

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“Why just one at a time?”

“So they don’t slosh out!”

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And the last of our wet ingredients, sour cream.

“Now it calls for 2/3 cup.  I’ve got a 1/3 cup measure, but sour cream is kind of annoying to scoop into it.  It’s messy and I don’t have a dishwasher and I don’t like to wash more dishes than I absolutely have to.  Do you think we could just weigh it instead?”

We looked at a chart of measuring equivalents.

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We determined that 1/3 cup is the same as 2.6 ounces.

“But we need 2/3 cup.”

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We placed the whole bowl onto the scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

And weighed 5.2 ounces of sour cream.  Without dirtying a cup.

Our next ingredient was flour.

I reminded them about the different types of flours.  Finely milled cake flour is made from a softer wheat than regular all-purpose flour, and as a lower-protein flour, it will develop less gluten when mixed with liquid.

“More gluten means chewy, like bread or pizza, less gluten means soft and tender, like birthday cake.  Do we want a chewy upside-down cake?”

“No!”

“That’s why we use cake flour.”

Because it is so finely milled, cake flour tends to clump up.

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Therefore, it needs to be sifted.

We put a sifter on top of the bowl of mixed wet ingredients and placed the whole thing on the scale.  This would allow us to weigh the cake flour directly into the sifter, measure our baking powder and baking soda on top of that, and then sift everything together right into the bowl.

Side note: If you don’t like to wash dishes, get a scale.

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The kids traded off hitting the side of the sifter with their hands or the handle of a spoon.  I think we got most of the dry ingredients in the bowl.

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They took turns incorporating the flour into the batter.

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I showed them how they could still use a folding motion with the whisk.

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The resulting batter was placed atop the cranberries.

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And they used a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly.

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We had to wait about 45 (!) minutes while the cake baked, during which there were several pleading inquiries about its status.

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Finally it was done.  But we still had to wait!

(Just long enough for the cake to cool slightly, but not so cool that the cranberry syrup would get too thick and stick to the pan.)

They gathered around while I removed the collar from the springform pan and placed a plate on top of the cake.  We flipped the whole thing over and removed the bottom of the pan…

“Ooooh!”

Seriously, the unveiling never gets old.

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It was inhaled.  In fact, the small amount of leftover cake nearly caused a family fight the next day.

Cranberries, who knew?

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Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, only slightly adapted from this recipe.

Serves 12

1/2 lb. (1 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (thawed, rinsed, and dried), at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

¾ tsp. fine sea salt

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2/3 cup (5.2 oz) sour cream, at room temperature

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

7 oz. (1-3/4 cups) cake flour

1 tsp. aluminum free baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least 2-1/2  inches high. (A springform pan will work; just be sure to set it on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any leaks.)

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Melt 4 Tbs. of the butter and stir it into the brown sugar and cinnamon until well combined. Spread the brown sugar mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan and spread the cranberries evenly over the sugar.

Put the remaining 12 Tbs. butter in a medium bowl. Using a wooden spoon, cream the butter with the granulated sugar and salt.  Add the egg yolk and mix until well combined.  Switch to a whisk and stir in the eggs one at a time. Whisk until the batter is smooth and the sugar begins to dissolve, about 30  seconds. Whisk in the sour cream and vanilla.  Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and baking soda directly onto the batter. Using the whisk, combine the ingredients until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Spread the batter evenly over the cranberry mixture in the cake pan. Bake until the center of  the cake springs back when gently touched and a skewer inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 50 to 65  min. Set the pan on a rack to cool for 5  to 10  minutes (the cranberry syrup in the bottom of the pan will be too thick if you wait longer). Run a knife between the cake and sides of the pan. Place a serving plate over the cake and invert the whole thing.  Remove the pan or bottom of the springform. Let cool for at least 15 min. more before serving.