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Cast Iron Cranberry Brown Sugar Cake is a quintessential fall and winter dessert. It’s a classic upside down cake featuring a beautifully tangy and perfectly balanced topping. Whether for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any special holiday come-together, this festive cake is fantastic for sharing. Makes 12 healthy servings.
This recipe adapted from The Art Of Simple Food, by Alice Waters, with a little tweaking by my late Grandmother, Anna. Re-published EatingWell Magazine June, 2016.
The ever humble cranberry, autumn’s shining star of the season. He gets no ‘play,’ no real action until the early days of October when his short time on the field scores many a touchdown. When fall is officially in, and the hearts and minds of many turn to comforting dishes that remind them of childhood, the ever humble cranberry jumps into action…
I offered a reader poll for Not Entirely Average subscribers just after the Holidays last year. How many actually purchased bags of fresh, whole cranberries with the intent to cook or bake with them? I was SHOCKED right out of my shoes when more than 55% said they’ve NEVER bought whole, fresh cranberries. Like, ever. WHAT!?
I had one subscriber who indicated that while she bought a bag annually, it was for a fresh flower display. Another reader froze them into ice cubes and ice bowls as a colorful accent for cocktails and chilled shrimp.
I even one guy who detailed his take on the Shirley Temple mocktail, using fresh, whole cranberries to float for some added fun. Whatever has happened to the ever humble cranberry I ask? Let’s explore this mystery over a warm slice of Cast Iron Cranberry Brown Sugar Cake, shall we?
Growing up in New Jersey, you did not dare host a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner where cranberry sauce was on the menu without that cranberry sauce being made from scratch. This is because at one time in our little states history, New Jersey was both the cranberry and blueberry capital of the United States.
The New Jersey Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands or simply the Pines, is the largest remaining example of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem, stretching across more than seven counties of New Jersey. The Pines continue to boast miles and miles of bogs for cranberries, and in the early fall, even the tiniest estuaries and streams inevitably have rogue cranberries lazily floating atop the bronzed tannin water, a reminder that harvest is still mildly primitive even today for this tiny native fruit.
The basic recipe for this cake is very versatile and can be made with apples, pears, peaches or any full-flavored, slightly acidic fruit.
I grew up enjoying fresh cranberries every harvest. My favorite way to eat them? Honestly, sugared cranberries are the Sour Patch Kids of yesteryear. Healthier for sure, my Grandmother would wash a handful of cranberries, shake them free of excess moisture, then pop them into a small brown bag with a tablespoon-ish of granulated sugar.
After being given a good shake, they’d be refrigerated for a bit until my bellyaching forced her to hand them over. CANDY!
And even today, I oftentimes garnish my holiday desserts with sugared cranberries. Many of you tried this for the first time ever when you baked my Semi-Homemade Cranberry Orange Christmas Cake. You’re welcome! For those who have not, now you’ve got choices to make. Consider this Cast Iron Cranberry Brown Sugar Cake.
I allow the butter and brown sugar mixture to bubble and pop in the hot cast iron before removing the skillet to cool down. It reminds me of making caramel candy.
Today, I am introducing my Grandmother and Mom’s favorite way to use a bag of cranberries. Whether you have a bag or even a partial bag leftover, or you are intentional and purchase a bag for this recipe, you will tickled to bits that you tried this. It is a recipe for a basic and very easy cranberry upside down cake.
Aside from the fresh, whole cranberries, you likely have the remaining ingredients already. That is because this is what my Grandmother referred to as a “scrapper cake.” I do not know if a scrapper cake means that it’s a leftover recipe from the Depression, but given the traditional upside down cake is baked in a cast iron skillet, I am guessing so.
The ingredients, but not really the method so much, are very close to Joy Of Baking’s Cranberry Upside Down Bundt Cake. Perhaps she was inspired because that was after all, her favorite cookbook.
So, this scrapper cake requires the most basic of pantry ingredients. But it is the method by which we will stiffen and fold the egg whites into the cake batter that gives this cake a lightened, almost ethereal crumb.
It is sweet without being too sweet, and pungent without being outright sour. If you wanted to use this method and go with the simple addition of pineapple to sell guests, I think a cranberry pineapple upside down cake would be delicious. Cranberry apple upside-down cake, too.
Once inverted after a brief cool down in the cast iron skillet in which it’s baked, the light brown sugar bottom becomes the molten brown sugar top. This butter brown sugar topping slowly cascades down the sides of the cake. There is no bite that is absent the gooey sugary topping, nor any bite that is without cranberry.
I am used to having this seasonal treat be offered to me with a biggie scoop of French vanilla ice cream. But really, I prefer my own fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream. It balances that acidity just a little better for me, but hey, if ice cream gets the vote, by all means serve a la mode.
Recipes from around the time of the Great Depression resonate with me. I was the grandchild of a Depression era child, my Grandmother. And, in turn, she raised my Mom and my Aunt Bev to be frugal. No waste. No extravagance. Here is the clincher. That’s JUST NOT ME.
But, whenever I make this cake, it does not taste or come across as ‘frugal.’ Not the ingredients, nor the taste. On the contrary, this cake is rather elegant. The egg white method elevates what might otherwise become as dense and heavy as a doorstopper. I like this recipe for everything it is not; Pretentious; Expensive; Fancy.
Can I use frozen cranberries in this cake?
Assuming you have an oven, any inch cast iron skillet, and dessert types who will enjoy a cranberry upside down cake, you are in business. No, no baking in a cake pan today. This all gets done in the skillet, and with good reason. You’ll be shocked at how quickly this not only comes together, but how moist a bake you can create in mere minutes.
I know I will get the question “can I use frozen cranberries?” The answer is yes. If you have a choice in the matter though, I urge you to try this recipe and method with fresh, whole cranberries. BE BRAVE!
Add pineapple or cherries to this cake recipe if you believe cranberries will be hard sell by themselves.
The steps to creating this seasonal masterpiece are like any other. Room temperature ingredients like the eggs, the butter (I use unsalted butter for this cake), and the milk are necessary. If you plan to bake this cake, it can be made ahead by a day.
My Mom likes it served warm. I am a bigger fan of this cake the day after the bake. Necessary add-ins include a teaspoon vanilla extract and orange juice. If you have only Juice concentrate, use it. I like it as much if not better, but for the sake of convenience, I am specifying orange juice herein. It’s something more folks than not will already have on hand.
How do you make cranberry cake?
Butter, brown sugar and the orange juice (or concentrate) are married in the skillet over medium heat until gooey. Heat a bag of fresh cranberries along with a splash or orange juice (or concentrate) until half of them pop. Just like that, the cranberry mixture is poured directly over the brown sugar mixture.
Whisk together flour and baking powder and salt. This flour mixture, once combined with the wet ingredients and the folded egg whites, will be our batter. We’re going to pour that batter over the cranberries and the brown sugar and bake for about 30 minutes. Test for doneness at 30 regardless. If it needs additional time, set your timer to check in 2 minute increments. Yes, it can get there and be too done that fast.
All images and text ©Jenny DeRemer for Not Entirely Average, LLC
Cast Iron Cranberry Brown Sugar Cake
- cast iron skillet, 8 inches or larger
- ¾ cup brown sugar light or dark, packed
- 4 tablespoons butter unsalted, softened to room temperature, divided
- ¼ cup orange juice + 2 tablespoons, divided
- 12 ounces cranberries fresh, thawed if using frozen
- 1 ½ cups flour all purpose
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs brought to room temperature, yolks and whites separated
- ⅓ cup canola oil
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup milk low-fat or 2%
- freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving optional but VERY TASTY!
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Heat brown sugar and 2 tablespoons each butter and orange juice in a large ovenproof cast-iron skillet, over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the butter melts and the mixture starts to bubble, about 3 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. ** Coat the sides of the pan with the butter as it melts using a rubber spatula.
- Bring the remaining 1/4 cup orange juice and cranberries to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring often, until about half the cranberries have popped, about 5 minutes. Pour evenly over the cooled sugar mixture in the pan.
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- Separate egg whites and yolks. Place the yolks in a large bowl and add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, oil, granulated sugar and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add to the flour mixture in stages, alternating with the milk, using a rubber spatula, starting and ending with the flour. Stir just until the flour is incorporated and no more.
- Beat the egg whites in a clean dry bowl with clean dry beaters on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the batter, then gently fold in the rest until almost no white streaks remain. Spread the batter over the cranberries.
- Bake until the top is golden brown and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, 30 to 40 minutes. **I test for doneness at 30 minutes. If the cake needs longer, I test in 2 minute increments until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.
- Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and carefully invert the cake onto a serving plate. Let cool for at least 30 minutes more before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Garnish with whipped cream or a quality vanilla ice cream, if desired.
The nutrition value can vary depending on what product(s) you use. The information below is an estimate. Always use a calorie counter you are familiar with.
Please note that table salt and iodized salt are NOT substitutions for Kosher salt. Do not deviate unless otherwise specified.