An alternative to the spiced apple desserts soon to dominate fall menus, here is a refreshing lemon cornmeal cake draped with a layer of tart apple slices and speckled with fruity, bittersweet pink peppercorns.
It was late summer’s Pink Pearl apples that magnetized me and motivated this recipe. Their flesh is a vivid, creamy rose color, their flavor is pleasantly mild and citrusy, and they only stay around for a few weeks each year — so embracing their season feels like a must.
(But don’t worry if you can’t find Pink Pearls; this recipe works wonderfully with most kinds of apples — particularly crisp, sturdy varieties that lean toward tartness.)
The pink beauties invited a citrus counterpart, and I knew lemon would make a perfect pairing. But the apples’ color also deserved a nod, so I reached for my stash of bright pink peppercorns: crisp and faintly peppery with lovely floral tones. (In fact, I’m told they’re actually dried berries— not really pepper at all!)
I decided on an upside-down cake that would flaunt both fruits when served, and included a scoop of cornmeal for character in the batter. The elements turned out to complement each other exquisitely: a symphony of flavors amid a dense and not-too-sweet crumb.
With buttery apple slices and toothsome cornmeal, this tender cake offers vibrancy in texture and taste alike. Thin and moist, the lemon layer bestows a brightness that’s perfectly balanced with bursts of tangy pink peppercorn.
Lemon apple skillet cake
Note: You’ll need 3 to 4 lemons total for this recipe (I prefer Meyer, but any kind will do). Begin by finely zesting the peel of two of them and setting the zest aside for the batter. Then juice them until you have ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice for the batter and fruit layer.
For the fruit layer:
3 medium-sized apples, preferably Pink Pearl
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, strained
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon pink peppercorns
Rinse and dry apples. If you have an apple corer, remove cores before slicing (otherwise, you can easily remove cores with a paring knife after slicing). Using a mandolin slicer or sharp knife, cut apples crosswise into thin slices (about 1/6” thick). Gently toss apple slices in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar; set aside.
In a 9-10″ ovenproof skillet such as cast iron, heat butter until just melted. Remove from heat. Rotate pan to let butter coat its inner sides. Scatter pink peppercorns rather evenly over the bed of the skillet, then carefully make a layer of overlapping slices of apple, being sure not to leave any openings exposing the pan. (Set aside any leftover sugary lemon juice for the batter.)
Return skillet to medium heat, letting fruit bubble and saute for 5 minutes, until apple slices have softened and can be penetrated easily with a fork. Remove from heat.
For the cake batter:
1 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornmeal
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, strained
up to 1/2 cup room temperature water
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Preheat oven to 350ºF. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk in the cornmeal. Set aside.
If you have any leftover sugary lemon juice from the apple marinade, pour it into a measuring cup and add water to make 1/2 cup. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar until uniform. Stir in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at time, beating well after each addition. Starting with the dry ingredients, alternately mix in the flour mixture, water mixture and lemon juice, combining thoroughly until ingredients are incorporated. Fold in the lemon zest until evenly distributed.
Gently pour the batter over the apples in the skillet, letting it flow to edges of pan.
Bake for about 25-35 minutes, just until edges of the cake are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean or with a few moist crumbs. Don’t be alarmed if the cake hasn’t risen much. Carefully remove from oven.
Let cool in pan for at least an hour. When ready to serve, if skillet is no longer warm on the bottom, place it over medium heat for 30-60 seconds to help loosen the apples. Carefully run a butter knife around the edge of the cake, and gently invert onto your serving plate.
For best results, serve the day baked. If not serving within a few hours or if you have leftovers, snugly wrap cooled cake in foil and store at room temperature up to 24 hours.
Enjoy for dessert, breakfast or an afternoon snack.