The gooeyness of pecan pie combines with fluffy vanilla cake in one delicious mashup: pecan upside down cake. This easy pecan cake recipe makes a great less-stress Thanksgiving dessert, but you'll want to enjoy these flavors year-round!
Stay with me now, but if you've ever thought pecan pie, while fabulous, was just a little too much, behold pecan upside down cake.
As someone who enjoys eating pie but doesn't often mess around with pie crust in my baking, I'll usually choose to make something pie-adjacent instead, like an apple crumble. In keeping the theme of not-quite-traditional Thanksgiving desserts rolling, this year I'm replacing pecan pie with pecan cake.
Reasons You'll Love This Cake
- All the best textures. In one slice you get the crunchy, gooey pecan topping you know and love with a super moist and tender cake layer beneath.
- The delicious crust. The butter/sugar/maple syrup topping juices bubble up the edges of the cake as it bakes to form a caramelized outer crust that just may be my favorite bite.
- It's less stress. Unlike crossing your fingers that the pineapple rings and cherries of a pineapple upside down cake will remain in their pattern once inverted, if the pecans stick to the pan when flipped - no worries! Place them back on the cake and they'll stick like nothing happened.
While two photos of ingredients may seem like a lengthy list, your shopping list won't be as long as it looks. Several ingredients are featured in both the topping and cake (unsalted butter, vanilla extract, cinnamon, salt).
- Pecans: Roughly chopped pecan halves works best for pecan upside down cake as their larger size helps prevent them from becoming displaced when the batter is added to the pan.
- Butter: A small amount is used to grease your pan, with the remainder of the stick melted down for the topping.
- Brown Sugar: Either light or dark are fine, but I prefer the extra molasses note that dark brown sugar brings in a recipe like this.
- Maple Syrup: This adds extra sweetness and gooeyness. Dark corn syrup or honey can also be used.
- Cinnamon: A wonderful flavor complement.
- Vanilla Extract: Add this off the heat so the flavor it doesn't cook out.
- Flour: This is sifted (after measuring) for a lump-free batter.
- Baking Soda and Powder: Both are used to provide lift. Make sure they're not expired, which impacts their effectiveness.
- Butter: Softened to room temperature for a fluffier cake texture.
- Yogurt: Retro upside down cake recipes often call for sour cream, but I chose plain Greek yogurt to boost the moisture.
- Milk: Whole milk is recommended for the richest flavor, but I've used 2% to make this cake before and it's certainly been delicious, too.
Prepare the Topping
Note - It's a good idea to prep your cake pan before beginning to cook so you don't forget later on. Grease the bottom and sides of the pan with the stick of butter designated for the topping (it will only use a small amount), then give the pan a good coating of cooking spray. The pecan topping is sticky so we want to do a thorough job.
- Heat the ingredients. Heat the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, and salt in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Once melted and smooth, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and pecans.
- Spread in pan to cool. Pour out the pecan topping into the prepared pan and press it into an even layer. Let this cool on the counter or in the fridge while you make the cake batter.
Mix the Cake Batter
- Mix wet ingredients. Cream butter and sugar together, then mix in the eggs, yogurt, and vanilla extract.
- Sift in dry ingredients. Use a large mesh sieve to sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and cinnamon into the bowl. This prevents lumps and ensures the leavening agents are well-dispersed.
- Combine. Mix everything together until no dry streaks remain, taking care not to over-mix as leads to a tougher crumb. It'll be quite thick.
- Beat in milk. Mix in the milk until a smooth, cohesive batter forms.
Assemble, Bake, and Cool
- Add batter to pan. Transfer big dollops of batter to the pan and gently smooth it around, taking care not to disturb the pecans.
- Bake. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake turns a deep golden-brown around the edges and a tester inserted in the tallest part comes out clean.
- Invert and zhush. Immediately run a thin spatula around the pan to loosen the edges, then let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes before inverting onto a plate or cake stand. Despite all the greasing the pecans will inevitably stick to the pan but that's okay! Use tongs to place them back onto the surface of the cake, where they'll stick together as the cake cools.
Expert Tips and Tricks
- Use a tall cake pan. Use a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least two inches tall to prevent spillover in the oven. Even still it's not a bad idea to put a sheet pan on a rack underneath to catch any juices that may bubble up and over.
- Spread the batter gently. Transfer spoonfuls of batter onto the pecan layer and gently smooth it around rather than quickly pour the batter in. Too much movement can disturb the pecan layer, causing them to lift up and bake into the cake rather than remain on the bottom as the topping.
- Don't stress the pecans. The sticky nature of the pecan topping means that it's expected that more than a few will stick to the pan when you flip the cake over. When that happens, you have several minutes to use tongs to place the pecans back onto the cake before they cool down. They'll solidify as they cool and stick back into place.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, this pecan cake freezes well. Once entirely cooled, wrap individual slices snugly in plastic wrap, then place wrapped slices in a zip-top freezer bag with all excess air pressed out. For best quality freeze for up to three months.
This cake is ready to serve as soon as it's completely cooled. It can be prepared, wrapped in plastic wrap, and stored at room temperature for ideally one, or two days. Leftover portions can be refrigerated for an extra day.
I have only made this pecan upside down cake recipe in a 9-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides, which has an 8-cup capacity. Note that a standard 9.5-inch pie plate has a 1.25- to 1.5-inch depth (give or take) and is too small for this volume of batter. Baking dishes with an 8-cup capacity or greater would likely work, though the bake time may differ.
More Recipes for Thanksgiving
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Pecan Upside Down Cake
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ½ cup packed brown sugar (dark or light)
- 3 ½ Tablespoons pure maple syrup
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups roughly chopped pecan halves
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter softened
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (2% or higher recommended)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup milk (whole milk recommended)
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan (with minimum 2-inch sides) with butter. To do so I rub the pan with the ½-cup stick of butter designated for the topping, adding the rest to the saucepan in the next step. Greasing the pan only uses up a very small amount of it. Once greased with butter, spray bottom and sides of pan with cooking spray to really ensure a full coat. Set pan aside for now.
- Add ½-cup butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, ½-teaspoon ground cinnamon, and ¼-teaspoon salt to a small saucepan set on the stove over medium-low heat. Stir as the butter melts and the ingredients combine until everything is even and smooth, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in ½-teaspoon vanilla extract and pecans. Stir to coat the pecans fully.
- Pour the pecan topping into the prepared pan and press it into an even layer. Let the topping cool in the pan as you prepare the batter, keeping it on the counter or refrigerating it.
- Thoroughly whisk together the flour, baking powder, ¾-teaspoon ground cinnamon, baking soda, and ¼-teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl. Set aside for now.
- Cream together the 6 Tablespoons of softened butter and granulated sugar in a mixing bowl for 2-3 minutes using an electric mixer, until the mixture is creamy and smooth. Beat in the eggs until combined, then the yogurt and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
- Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl of wet ingredients using a large mesh sieve, the mix in until just combined and no dry streaks remain. The batter will be thick.
- Add the milk and mix until smooth and combined, scraping down the sides as needed.
Assembling and Baking
- Add dollops of batter over top of the pecan topping in the pan, taking care not to disturb the layer of pecans underneath. Use a spatula to gently even out the surface until the batter is in an even layer.
- Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the edges turn a deep golden-brown, the top is set, and a toothpick comes out clean.
- Immediately run a thin spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake from the sides. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes only.
- After 5 minutes, carefully invert the pan onto a large plate. As you lift the pan away you'll likely notice pecans stuck in it. Simply use tongs to place all the lost pecans back onto the cake evenly. As the cake cools the pecan coating will harden and they will all stick together.
- Let the cake cool completely before slicing into wedges and serving.
- Pan Size - Do not use a cake pan with a depth shorter than 2-inches, as this is the minimum capacity necessary (8 cups). A standard size 9.5-inch pie plate is too small!
- Prevent Spillover - This cake rises up in the pan as it bakes, with pecan filling bubbling up the sides. If you're concerned it may bubble over while it bakes, place a rimmed sheet pan on a rack underneath the cake pan to catch any errant drips.
- Storage Instructions - Once cooled completely, cover cake with plastic wrap and store at room temperature for 1-2 days. It can last in the refrigerator for an extra day or two.
- Freezing Instructions - This cake freezes well. Wrap leftover slices snugly in plastic wrap, then place in a zip-top freezer bag. Press out all excess air and freeze for up to several months (for the best quality).
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.Food Safety and Nutrition Disclaimer
Source: The cake layer is adapted from the NYT Cooking pineapple upside down cake recipe.