When I first came across Pink Pearl apples, I was simply magnetized. Their flesh is a vibrant, 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 felt like a must. While munching on many in their delicious, pure state, I relished in the tangy-sweet crunch I love so much about eating apples raw. Still, it didn’t take me long to start daydreaming of how to showcase them in a new baked creation.
The tart pink beauties invited a citrus counterpart, and I knew lemon would make a perfect pairing. But the apples’ color also deserved a celebration, 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 added character in the batter. The elements turned out to complement each other beautifully, resulting in a delicious symphony of flavors amid a moist, tender crumb.
Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake with Pink Peppercorns, Lemon and Cornmeal
Makes a 9.75” cake, serves 8-10
You’ll need three to four lemons total for this recipe (I used Meyer, but any kind will do). Begin by finely zesting 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, respectively. Be sure to use an ovenproof skillet such as cast iron. My skillet is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″, but it’s only 9.75″ across the top at the widest part. Feel free to use one that’s close to this size, and carefully watch the baking time, adjusting as needed.
FOR THE FRUIT LAYER:
• 2-3 medium sized pink pearl apples
• 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
• ¼ cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon pink peppercorns
Rinse and dry apples. Using a mandolin slicer or sharp knife, cut apples crosswise into thin (1/8″) slices. Remove core from slices with a paring knife. Toss apple slices in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar; set aside. In a 9-10″ heatproof skillet, heat the butter until just melted; remove from heat. Rotate pan to let butter coat its inner sides. Scatter the pink peppercorns rather evenly over the butter, then make a layer of overlapping slices of apple on top of the peppercorns, starting at the outer edge. 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 paring knife. Remove from heat.
FOR THE CAKE BATTER:
• 1.25 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons corn meal
• 1/3 cup melted unsalted butter
• ½ cup sugar
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup strained fresh lemon juice
• ½ cup room temperature water
• finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk in the cornmeal. Set aside. In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar until even. Stir in the vanilla. Making sure the mixture is not too hot from the butter (lukewarm is fine), add the eggs one at time, beating well after each is added. Starting with the dry ingredients, alternate adding the flour mixture, water and lemon juice, mixing thoroughly until ingredients are incorporated. Finally, fold in the lemon zest and stir until evenly distributed. Gently pour the batter over the fruit, letting it reach edges of skillet.
Bake for about 30 minutes, just until edges of cake are golden brown and center tests clean with a toothpick (no wet batter; a few moist crumbs are OK). Carefully remove from oven. Let cool for at least an hour. If not serving within a few hours, let cool completely then tightly wrap skillet in foil. Store at room temperature up to 10 hours. When ready to serve, place skillet over medium heat for 30-60 seconds to help loosen apples. Run a butter knife around the edge of the cake, and carefully invert onto your serving plate.
Draped in a layer of pink deliciousness, this tender, corn-flecked cake offers sweet vibrancy in color and flavor alike. The lemon bestows a brightness that’s perfectly balanced with fruity bursts of peppercorn (which some tasters declared are the key to cake’s magic). Tender apple slices make for a moist and succulent texture, enhanced by the toothsome cornmeal throughout. Refreshing and not too sweet, this skillet cake makes a great breakfast, a nice treat with afternoon tea, or a light and satisfying dessert. Anytime of day, its vividness proves welcome with every bite.
Maybe next time… Stunning Pink Pearl Apples were the inspiration behind this cake, but when they can’t be found, other varieties of apples would work fine in their place — try picking your favorite kind. For a sweeter, more decadent cake, replace the water and lemon juice with lemonade, and/or dust with powdered sugar or top with vanilla ice cream to serve. This cake is all about the citrus, and I imagine orange juice and zest would be as marvelous as lemon. But please try not to omit the pink peppercorns, nor to increase the amount; the tablespoon noted here was truly the sweet spot.