Introduced in the 1930s, when cast-iron skillets were more commonly found in kitchens than baking pans, the upside-down, or skillet, cake has survived eras of modernization to remain a beloved dessert. Today, Martha puts a seasonal twist on this old-fashioned favorite, eschewing the classic pineapple for sweet and juicy Bartlett pears—large, bell-shaped fruits with smooth, yellow-green skin.
FOR THE TOPPING
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
3 ripe pears, such as Bartlett or Anjou, peeled and cored
FOR THE BATTER
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Make the topping: Melt butter in the bottom of a 10 1/2-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat. Add brown sugar, stirring until dissolved. Swirl to coat the bottom; remove from heat, and cool. Cut pears into 1/4-inch-thick wedges, and arrange them in a circular pattern over the brown-sugar mixture to cover completely; set aside.
Make the batter: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla extract; beat to combine. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating to combine.
Alternating with the milk, gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and mix, on low speed, just until the flour is incorporated.
In a large bowl, beat reserved egg whites and the cream of tartar with a hand mixer until stiff but not dry. Using a rubber spatula, fold egg whites into the batter. Transfer to skillet. Using an offset spatula, spread the batter evenly, being careful not to disturb the pears.
Bake until well browned on top and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Run a knife around inside of pan, and immediately invert the cake onto a serving dish. Serve warm or at room temperature.