Where banana bread whispers of pandemic lockdown, plantain cake speaks of a brighter future
It’s 2022, and banana bread is so lockdown 2020. But platanos upside down cake? That will never get old.
As someone who always keeps yellow platanos, or plantains, handy on my kitchen counter or in my freezer, I’m always looking for new ways to make use of them. And though making them into platonos en tantacion (pretty much the Latin American version of bananas foster) is never a bad idea, I recently began thinking of ways to transform my trusty platanos into something more magical. I pondered banana desserts that I could give a Hispanic kick to. Plátano cream pudding crossed my mind (and I’ll probably make that too), but what’s more breathtaking than an upside down cake to show off what a platano can do?
Although they look alike, there are some key differences between bananas and plantains. The latter are a starchy banana variety commonly used throughout Latin America. They’re usually larger and tougher than bananas, with a much thicker skin. They may be green, yellow, or very dark brown. Green plantains are used for savory preparations, while the yellow ones find their way into sweeter dishes. When ripe, plantains have a dry texture, whereas ripe bananas are smooth and creamy. And while ripe bananas are eaten raw, plantains are not — they need heat and fat (and lots of it) to be palatable and help break down their starches. When they’re cooked, they’re sweet like a banana but don’t taste like one — instead, they have a vegetal flavor. That means that neither plantains nor this plantain upside down cake have that banana flavor we’re so used to in the United States, where “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet dessert bananas, namely those from the Cavendish family.
To develop this recipe, I pored over a ton of classic banana upside down cake recipes and also recalled my favorites. One thing I knew for sure was that my cake would contain sour cream, since some of the best banana upside down cakes I’ve ever had used sour cream or buttermilk. That’s no accident: the acidity in both ingredients brings a pleasant tang to the cake and helps to tenderize the gluten in the flour, which gives the cake a softer texture and more body.
For this cake, look for the yellowest plantains you can find. Spots like a leopard are good. And if you can’t find fresh ones, try the freezer section, where plantains are sometimes sold peeled and frozen.
Instead of frosting, the plantains themselves are used to decorate the cake. Sliced in half-lengthwise and dripping in caramel, they’re simple yet stunning. So the next time you come across a plantain and wonder how to use it, well, now you know — go and bake a cake.
Plantain Upside Down Cake Recipe
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake
For the caramel topping:
¼ cup unsalted butter
½ cup (100 grams) brown sugar
1 pinch kosher salt
2-3 large ripe yellow plantains or 6 small plantains
For the cake:
1⅓ cups (180 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup unsalted butter (softened)
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup sour cream or yogurt
Flaky sea salt for garnishing
First, make the caramel topping:
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of a round 9-inch springform pan with butter or non-stick cooking spray. Wrap the pan with tin foil in case you happen to have a sugar leak.
Step 2: Add the butter and sugar to a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Let boil, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved, 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt. Pour the caramel into the springform pan and use a spatula to spread it evenly across the base, working quickly and carefully before it cools. Slice the plantains into halves or thirds lengthwise and arrange on top of the caramel, cut side down to cover the base of the pan in a single layer.
Next, make the cake:
Step 1: Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl. Set aside.
Step 2: Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or an electric whisk, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs one by one, scraping the bowl between additions. On low speed, add half of the dry ingredients and mix until just combined, then add all of the sour cream or yogurt, mixing until just combined. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Pour the cake batter over the plantains and spread it evenly across them. Place the cake on a rimmed baking tray and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Step 3: Let the cake cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Invert it upside down onto a plate and release the springform pan — you don’t want to wait any longer than this because the caramel will harden and glue the cake to the pan. Let the cake cool for another 10-15 minutes, or until it’s warm but not still hot (you don’t want it to cool fully, or the plantains will toughen up a bit). Garnish with sea salt and serve. The cake is best eaten as soon as it is made, but can be stored wrapped tightly in plastic in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
Marisel Salazar is a New York City-based food and restaurant writer, cook, and recipe developer. She is originally from Panama and has lived in Hawaii, Japan, Virginia and Madrid. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, and on TikTok at @mariselmsalazar.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep