Citrus Upside-Down Cake

upside-down citrus cake

Some desserts just elicit an “ooh” or an “ahh” when you bring them to the table. This citrus upside-down cake is one of them!

I’ve made this cake (which comes to us from Melissa Clark) several times for dinner parties over the past few years. Every time I bring it out people stop their conversation to marvel at the grid of reds and oranges and yellows from the variety of citrus that I use. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s a showstopper! (Do laymen use the word “showstopper”?) And it’s actually a cinch to make.

It’s All About the Citrus

As you might guess with a citrus upside-down cake, it’s all about the fruit that you layer into the bottom. You could use everyday navel oranges or tangerines, but here in California we also get Cara Cara oranges (which are pinkish on the inside), blood oranges (which are red), and all different sorts of orange oranges. I like to buy one of each and then stagger the colors.

The only challenging part to this recipe is cutting off the skin. It’s definitely a skill you should practice. Not only is this great to do for an upside-down cake, but it’s also great for a salad. You just slice the tops and bottoms off your fruit with a very sharp knife. Then, with the knife, follow the white from the top to the bottom until all you’re left with is fruit. It’s way pretty.

A Piece of Cake

The batter for this cake has two key ingredients: cornmeal, which gives it a rough texture (almost like polenta), and sour cream, which makes it tender. The only planning you have to do is to bring the butter and eggs to room temperature before you use them, or they won’t incorporate.

You let it cool for ten minutes and then put the upside-down in the citrus upside-down cake: you flip it out on to a cake stand. If you’re wearing oven mitts, and you’re confident, it’ll go like gangbusters. Next: you let it cool. When it’s time to serve, whip up some whipped cream and work a little Cointreau in there to exaggerate the orange.

As winter winds down, this cake’s a big blast of California sunshine to remind you of the sunny days to come.

upside-down citrus cake

Citrus Upside-Down Cake

A complicated looking, easy-to-make cake adapted from Melissa Clark.
Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Keyword cake, citrus, cornmeal, oranges
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Servings 8 people


  • 2 sticks butter plus 3 tablespoons, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 oranges (Cara Cara, blood, etc.)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup fine cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup sour cream, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract


  • Heat your oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray.
  • In a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter. Add the brown sugar and the lemon juice and cook until the sugar melts, about 3 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the bottom of your prepared pan.
  • Grate the zest from two of the oranges into a bowl with the granulated sugar. Pinch the zest into your sugar with your fingers to extract the oils. Set aside.
  • Cut the tops and bottoms off the citrus, then use your knife to cut away the rind top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. Slice the fruit into 1/4-inch thick rings and place decoratively into the cake pan on top of the brown sugar/butter mixture. You may be left with extra fruit — a snack for the chef.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. In a stand mixer, cream the 2 sticks of butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides every so often. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla and fold in the dry ingredients by hand. (It may look a bit curdled, that's okay.)
  • Scrape the batter over the oranges and spread evenly. Bake 40 to 50 minutes until a tester comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes in the pan; then use a knife to run it around the perimeter and carefully (with mitts on) flip the cake out on to a cake stand. Let cool completely before serving.

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5 thoughts on “Citrus Upside-Down Cake”

  1. 5 stars
    Live in the Florida Keys so the citrus variety is available. Can’t wait to try this weekend to greet family visiting from the north!

  2. 5 stars
    Hey Adam, I baked your cake! We’re excited to have after dinner this eve! What knife do you use to make tidy slices? (My cake looks a lot like your photo!) Also…have you ever attended Lynden’s annual Antique Tractor Show at Berthuson Park in August on any visits to WA? You can get fresh ground corn flour there–I mean you watch them grind your flour! So fresh tasting. A big difference. Best Regards.

    1. Hi Sandi, glad the cake turned out! I’d just use a sharp chef’s knife. We went to the Lynden Fair a few years ago, but didn’t see the freshly ground corn. Will check it out next time :)

  3. I made this yesterday. It’s delicious except the oranges have a bitter taste. They didn’t before I cooked them. I used the same oranges as you. I don’t know what could have caused this. Any ideas?

    1. I’m not sure! The oranges would’ve mixed with butter and sugar, which shouldn’t make them bitter? Glad you found the cake delicious otherwise.

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