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Carolyn's Galley: Chocolate Upside-Down Cake


My husband, Dave, and I tend to be pretty active when we’re living on the boat. We walk the beaches and towns, hike on islands, snorkel or explore on our stand-up paddleboard.

By mid-afternoon, we’re hungry. I’ve learned to plan on an afternoon snack, usually something such as frozen yogurt, granola or fruit.

Every so often, though, we have a treat—a cake or cookies—usually to celebrate a special occasion. Dave’s favorite is my great-grandmother’s Chocolate Upside-Down Cake. She and my great-grandfather homesteaded in the Dakotas in the 1880s, and their diary tells of getting this recipe from a neighbor.

It’s a great recipe on the boat for many of the same reasons the homesteaders liked it. The cake is quick to make, it’s designed to be mixed by hand, the ingredients are easy to find and store, the gooey topping is baked right in (but on the bottom so it doesn’t run in hot weather), it’s easy to take to potlucks since there’s nothing sticky on top, and it’s tolerant of a variety of pan sizes and not-quite-exact oven temperatures. Plus it’s delicious!

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1 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 tablespoons unsweetened baking cocoa

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup milk, soy milk or water

2 tablespoons melted butter, margarine or vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup broken walnuts or pecans


1/2 cup brown sugar (if not available, use additional white and a smidge of honey or molasses)

1/2 cup white sugar

5 tablespoons cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place all cake ingredients in a bowl and mix. Pour into an ungreased 8-by-8-inch or similarly sized pan (alternately, you can use an 8- or 9-inch round pan). Let sit while you prepare the topping, which can be made in the same bowl—scrape the batter into the pan and you don’t need to wash the bowl.

Mix the topping ingredients together and spoon over the mix in the baking pan. The cake mix may start to float to the surface—that’s normal.

Bake in a 350°F oven for 35 minutes. Cake is done when the top is uniformly dry, although the frosting mixture may bubble around the sides. Don’t overbake! Allow to cool before serving.

To serve, cut cake into pieces and slip a spatula under one slice. Carefully take it out of the pan and flip it “upside down” onto a plate—the gooey frosting will now be on top. Generally, not all of the frosting will have come out of the pan. If this happens, scrape the extra out and drizzle it over the top of the slice. 

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