For me, baking with cast iron evokes the imagination. Here in my suburban kitchen, I imagine myself in a rustic cabin somewhere in the country. The crisp, late autumn breeze is kept at bay by a warm fire dancing in the fireplace, and it’s just me, my family, and the sounds of early morning. There is no television, no radio, but plenty of books – and a golden hued cake baking in the oven, while a pot of water simmers for tea. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Perhaps it seems strange that a piece of cookware would trigger these flights of fancy, but knowing the history of this incredible culinary tool makes it all but inevitable. For decades upon decades, cast iron cookware was indispensable to housewives and frontiersmen alike. Colonial women used their cast iron pots and pans to make everything from cornbread and chili to cobblers and cakes, valuing cast iron’s ability to conduct heat evenly whether cooking over an open flame or by burying a covered pot in a pile of coals. When pioneer women traveled West they took their cast iron with them, knowing how crucial their cookware would be both on the trail and when they reached their rugged destination. But whether living on the frontier or on the more developed eastern coast, the importance of cast iron remained the same. Case in point: George Washington’s mother made a point to bequeath her cast iron cookware to a favorite relative in her will. Only that person could have it! She was that attached to her cast iron.
I first learned about the role cast iron played in American history while watching the PBS series Frontier House, which was not only a fascinating look into the way people used to cook and live, but was a unique experiment that sought to answer the question: could a modern day family survive in 1800′s Montana frontier territory? (Watch the show to find out.) Not just women, but frontiersman – and eventually cowboys – likewise treasured their cast iron ware. Members of the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition prized their cast iron as much as their rifles, while cowboys on cattle drives used it to cook meals over campfires on the open range. Every team of cowboys was accompanied by a “chuckwagon,” which was a wagon that carried food and cooking equipment. The cook – often called “Cookie” – in charge of the wagon was so important that he was usually second only to the “trailboss” in terms of authority, and he acted not only as cook, but as barber, dentist and banker as well. Cooking and baking on the open range was no easy task, but with his trusty cast iron Cookie made biscuits, beans, steak and sometimes dessert (if the cowboys were real nice). In modern times there is an annual chuckwagon cook-off that honors both the skill of these trailblazing cooks and showcases the array of meals that can be made with cast iron. There is also an American Chuckwagon Association.
Cast-iron cookware was a kitchen essential until Teflon-coated utensils were introduced in the 1960′s, but those who’ve cooked with cast iron often prefer it over non-stick pans. In addition to being a fantastic heat conductor that can go from stove to oven, it is also inexpensive and, with proper care, can last for generations. I’ve heard of many families where cast iron skillets and pots have been passed down from great-great-grandmothers – and the pans are still in excellent condition!
There are health benefits to cooking with cast iron as well. Since a well seasoned cast iron pan is inherently non-stick, there is no need to use oil in recipes that would otherwise require it. And for the iron deficient, cast iron cookware boosts your iron intake by releasing trace amounts of iron into your food – a good thing, in moderation. In fact, the only real downside to cooking with cast iron is that it’s heavy, but the cakes, breads and stir fry’s you’ll make by using it are worth the effort. (One tip: don’t use tomato based sauces in your cast iron ware, the acidity of the tomatoes doesn’t react well with the iron.) You can learn more about how to season and care for cast iron by visiting the Lodge website.
One of my favorite things to make with my cast iron skillet is upside down cakes, or, as my brother used to call them, topsy-turvey cakes. These easy-to-assemble cakes get their name from the way in which they are put together – generally with a decorative fruit topping on the bottom, that is then flipped right side up when the cake is done. Pineapple upside down cake is the most popular manifestation, but I love making these cakes with apples or pears. The recipe featured in this post was written for pears, but you could easily substitute apples if that’s what you have on hand – granny smith or slightly under ripe golden delicious apples would be my recommendation. Flavored with brown sugar, tangerine zest and ground cardamom, this pear cake is the sort of treat I allow myself on early weekday mornings. A bit of fine cornmeal adds texture, and with the caramelized pears on top? Who could resist? The cake goes so well with a steaming mug of coffee.
Upside Down Cardamom Pear Cake (My Recipe)
Special equipment: 10 1/4 inch cast iron skillet, available at Amazon.com for $11.69 or at your local kitchen supply store. (You could use a regular oven-safe skillet – but you’ll have to adjust the baking time. If you have cast iron, use it!)
- Pear Topping:
- 3-4 Green Anjou pears, depending on the size of the pears
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup fine cornmeal
- 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- Zest of 1 tangerine (about 1 teaspoon), orange zest is good too
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2/3 cup light brown sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- 3/4 cup whole milk
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
To make the pear topping: peel the pears, then half lengthwise and remove the core. Cut into 1/2 wide slices. Spread the brown sugar on a plate. Press each side of the pear slices into the sugar to coat, saving remaining sugar. Melt the butter in your skillet over medium heat. Arrange the pear slices in a circular fashion, beginning around the edge of the pan and working inwards. The slices should overlap each other by half. Sprinkle reserved sugar around the pears. Cook, without turning the pears, until the pears are golden underneath, about 20 minutes. Depending on the size of your burner you may need to rotate the skillet occasionally for evening browning.
To make the cake: While the pears are browning, in a small bowl combine the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, salt, cardamom and tangerine zest. Gently whisk together.
In a large bowl using an electric mixer, or with a stand mixer, combine the olive oil and sugar. Add the egg, then the vanilla.
When the pears are a couple minutes away from being done, add half the dry ingredients to the olive oil and sugar mixture and combine. Then add the milk, then the rest of the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Spoon the batter over the pears in your skillet, making sure to distribute the batter evenly. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool for at least 20 minutes. To flip the cake, gently run a butter knife around the edges of the cake, then place a large serving platter over the skillet. Press the plate and skillet together, then flip them both. Tap the bottom of the skillet to make sure the cake drops out, then remove the skillet.
Serve the cake on its own or with vanilla ice cream.