A Citrus Upside-Down Sheet Cake for the Final Days of Winter

For resident baker Erin McDowell, the magic of baking never gets old.

February 25, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

I was afraid of upside-down cakes when I first started baking. Despite ratings of “easy” and headnotes that assured success, I always skipped the upside-down cake recipes when I scoured my mom’s cookbooks looking for my next baking project.

I had already experienced some traumatic experiences with cakes sticking in pans: The first Bundt cake I baked got stuck on one half, then unmolded perfectly on the other half, leaving me totally baffled. I later figured out that my batter wasn’t mixed properly, and a piece of brown sugar had sunk to the bottom of the pan, melted, and then caused the batter around it to adhere to the pan as it caramelized during baking. For so long I worried that I'd mess up the seemingly simple upside-down cake for the same reason, because it seemed so plausible that the sugar used to coat the base of the pan could stick and ruin everything.

It took a birthday request from a family member to finally force me into trying my hand at an upside-down cake. I selected a recipe I’d been eyeballing for months and followed it to a T. In those days, I’d turn on the oven light and watch the cake through the door for the first 15 minutes or so of baking. Though I knew the science, it was always magic to me. The soupy mixture would puff up, create an outer crust, and begin to change color before my eyes. Admittedly, watching the upside-down cake bake wasn’t as satisfying—I was still so nervous, because I couldn’t see what was happening in the base of the pan.

But I had read about the science of that, too. I had read that it was important to grease the pan with plenty of butter (to the point where it feels like too much) before applying an even coat of sugar. The two melt and combine in the oven, along with some of the fruit's juices, forming a sort of caramel sauce. This sauce is high enough in fat that it won’t stick to the pan, but there’s just enough sugar to sweeten the fruit that goes with it.

When the cake came out of the oven, I ran an offset spatula around the outer edge of the cake. It didn’t seem stuck, but I figured I’d better not jinx it by assuming anything. The recipe told me to wait 8 to 10 minutes before turning it out, so I waited 9 exactly. I turned the pan over onto a cooling rack and felt the cake flop out. I took a deep breath and pulled the pan away: It hadn’t stuck. The fruit on top glistened in its golden caramel. It was one of the prettiest things I’d ever made, a combination of science and magic (but mostly magic).

Photo by Julia Gartland

This was why I first fell in love with baking, that combination of practicality and wonder. It fostered in me a desire to learn how things worked in the kitchen so I could gain confidence to do more and more creative things with ingredients and techniques. Through the years, I’ve made so many upside-down cakes, using all kinds of fruits and a ton of different batter combinations. They’re ripe for riffing on (pun fully intended), so any different kinds of fruits work beautifully in this application. You can really make them all year long, tweaking with the seasons, which is how this orange sheet cake version came about.

Photo by Julia Gartland

Citrus fruits are particularly versatile. You can remove the peel and pith, or use the whole fruit. You can slice, segment, or chop the fruit to achieve different results. When citrus is in season, I’m always so impressed with the color spectrum, which is why I used quartered pieces of peeled oranges here: tangerines, mandarins, cara cara, blood oranges, clementines. They all work on their own, or in any combination. Most importantly, using different colored pieces makes a sort of mosaic effect when the cake is unmolded.

Photo by Julia Gartland

Speaking of which, I still get excited (and I’ll fully admit, a little nervous) when it comes time to unmold upside-down cakes. When I made this cake in the Food52 offices, the timer went off as I was chatting with a group of folks in the kitchen, including Amanda Hesser and Kristen Miglore. I took a deep breath and flipped the pan in one swift motion. I may have been a little more confident in that flip than 16-year-old me was, years ago. But my hands still quivered. I was nervous.

Photo by Julia Gartland

The pan pulled away to reveal a beautiful cake topped with lacquered orange gems. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was perfect.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Loved the bitterness of the oranges against the sweetness of brown sugar and the cake itself is so tender. Just perfect. ”
— SandraM

It doesn’t matter how much confidence I’ve gained in my baking journey all these years. Some things never change. I may know the science is sound, but the magic keeps me guessing. Luckily, it’s also what keeps everything exciting and delicious, particularly when topped with a hefty dollop of whipped cream and enjoyed with old friends.

What's your latest kitchen success story? Please share in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sarah White
    Sarah White
  • SandraM
  • Laura
  • weshook
  • Samantha Hodgson
    Samantha Hodgson
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


Sarah W. May 10, 2020
Where is the recipe? The cake looks very good, but I only see the ingredients list.
weshook May 11, 2020
If you click the view recipe, it will take you to the full recipe with the complete instructions.
SandraM March 1, 2019
So good!! Made this tonight. Didn't have yogurt, so had to use sour cream. Used blood orange and navel oranges.
Paired it with vanilla ice cream, as we didn't have whipped cream. 👍
Will definitely be making this again.
Loved the bitterness of the oranges against the sweetness of brown sugar and the cake itself is so tender. Just perfect.
Laura February 27, 2019
Do you think I could change out the flour in the recipe for almond flour?
weshook February 26, 2019
It IS magic! Baking continues to amaze me. Especially sourdough bread; how water, flour, a bit of salt, a lot of time and heat can become a loaf of bread is always magical to me.
weshook February 26, 2019
Oh, I got distracted...I've always wondered about a citrus fruit upside down cake, trying this soon.
Samantha H. February 25, 2019
Absolutely stunning! I've been on a sheet cake spree, so I'll be sure to make this and report back with my results.