A Charming Honey Orange Upside-Down Cake to Share with Family

Slice of vintage orange upside down cake with honey orange soak on worn wood by bake this cake

This World War II era cake is made with fresh orange slices baked in a brown sugar and butter glaze. After the cake is flipped upside down like a pineapple upside down cake, it soaks in a warm orange-honey sauce. Talk about tender and moist and zestfully flavorful! You can even spike it with brandy and serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if you like. But any way you do it up, you’ll have a charming retro cake hit on your hands.

Vintage recipe for orange upside down cake sliced front on wood by bake this cake

Summer sunshine in a slice. You’ll only need one medium orange for this small, retro-sized cake, or perhaps 2 smaller clementine oranges – unless you’d like to double (or quadruple) this recipe for a potluck casserole cake.  So grab up an orange, get this thing going and, while the cake is baking, you can watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (where a Clementine Cake is cast in a supporting role).

Clementine oranges for vintage honey orange cake by bakethiscake

A slice of history with your cake. Because this cake recipe comes to us from 1944, you know that it was read and baked and shared with family at a time when the world was at war. A time when folks could use a little sunshine on their plates. This simple, old-fashioned comfort dessert in the form of a sweet little homemade cake would be just the ticket.

Family Meal 1944

World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history. It brought pain and sorrow to the world. But it also brought us heroes. Among that courageous lot was a brave and dedicated group of women, with a spotlight on their efforts mostly in retrospect (sadly, after most of them have passed). These super smart women shared their professional skills with total dedication to care for our wounded servicemen as Flight Nurses of the U. S. Army Air Corp and U. S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy.

Navy flight nurses at School of Aviation Medicine, 1940s

Navy flight nurse school, 1940s

Flying Nightingales: These nurses practiced their healing arts closer to the actual fighting than had ever been done before in America’s previous wars. They weren’t paid or promoted the same as their male counterparts (there was a salary ceiling on the highest grade a woman could achieve and their numbers were limited (until President Johnson signed a bill to correct that in 1967). But they cared and comforted wounded soldiers under harrowing conditions to work their nursing magic.

A flight nurse checks on her patients, July 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cherry Ames Flight Nurse by Helen Wells Jacket Cover photo bakethiscakeTheir’s is the Flight Nurse’s Creed in the true spirit of “The Lady With The Lamp”, Florence Nightingale. Their calm demeanor, their brilliant nursing skills and their smiling faces brought hope to soldiers during intense adversity. These military flight nurses served aboard noisy, bouncing, flying ambulances (a modern revolution in military medical care via “air evacuation” squadrons established by the Army Medical Department) as a life-saving aid to soldiers who might not otherwise be able to hold on until surgical care was available.

Flight Nurse giving plasma infusion in flight WWII

Flight nurse administers plasma to soldier in flight.

Flight Nurse cover of Yank The Army WeeklyThis specialized team of nurses were trained to top physical condition to care for patients during these rigorous flights. They learned airplane crash procedures, received survival training, learned to swim like Olympic competitors and studied the high altitude impact of their patients. Their skill and dedication contributed to the extremely high post-injury survival rate among American military forces in every theater of the war.

Flight Nurse Badge

The goal was to load a medical evacuation plane within 10 minutes with wounded soldiers on stretchers, one (female) Flight Nurse and one (male) Medical Technician. A flight surgeon briefed the nurse on the ground about each patient’s condition prior to takeoff, and during the flight she was responsible for the medical safety and comfort of the patients. Within this “chain of evacuation” during the war, nurses served under fire on these medical transport planes. Many nurses lives were lost and some nurses were even captured and held prisoner by enemy forces.

Flight Nurse assistance wounded servicemen on board WWI plane

My Aunt Ethel (Captain Ethel Marian Kovach-Odell, 1919-1972) was one of these amazing flight nurses. She served her Naugatuck, Connecticut, community as a nurse after graduating from Mt. Sinai Hospital School of Nursing and then in 1942, at age 23, she joined the U. S. Air Force Nurses Corp and served 45 months overseas as an Air Force Nurse before training at Randolf Air Force Base near San Antonio to become an Air Force flight nurse.

Portrait of Ethel Marian Kovach Odell

Aunt Ethel met and married my uncle, Don, during a tour of duty and continued military service as both a Lieutenant and a mom. Her first child was born in Texas while she was stationed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. Her second child was born in Yokohama, Japan, and her third in Nuremberg, Germany. When she finally landed back in California with her husband and children, she would enter the non-military world of nursing but continue to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Air Force Reserve Nurse Corp. Here’s a 1962 newspaper clipping from the Modesto Bee and Herald showing Aunt Ethel speaking to a group of nurses about civil defense.

Lt Col Ethel Odell Air Force Reserve Nurse Corp speaking to Modsto nurses in 1962 about civil defense

Vintage Orange Upside Down Cake Recipe 1944 by bake this cakeA cake salute to Aunt Ethel and the Flight Nurses of WWII: This vintage cake recipe hails from the Daily News in Huntington, Pennsylvania, March 14, 1944. We changed it up a tiny bit after experimenting with it (like a little extra sugar since we’re not on sugar rations now and butter instead of shortening) but it stays true to form with an added orange honey soaker sauce from the same era that is poured over top after the cake is flipped.  Although we have some more elaborate (and yummy) homemade orange cake recipes for you, like the Helen of Troy Cake (the cake that launched a thousand ships) and a Crushed Pineapple Cake, this one is small and comforting and feels like home.

Okay then, let’s bake this cake, shall we? This recipe makes one small 8″ single-layer cake that’s plenty rich and perfect for serving 4 to 6 slices. Double the recipe and use a rectangular glass casserole dish for a larger pot-luck cake.

Honey Orange Upside Down Cake vintage recipe by bake this cake

Ingredients for Vintage Orange Upside Down Cake:
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup golden brown sugar (firmly packed)
1 large orange (for zest, slices)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup unsalted butter (half cube)
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk (we used 2%)

Ingredients for Orange-Honey Soaker Sauce:
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (strained of seeds and pulp)

1. Prep the bottom of the baking dish:

Prepare a small round baking dish (we used an 8″ glass baking dish but you may also use an 8″ iron skillet or even an 8″ glass pie plate) with the following ingredients, smoothed in the plate with a spoon for even coverage over the bottom of the dish:

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (microwave works here)
4 Tablespoons hard-packed and lump-free golden brown sugar

Tip: You can warm the brown sugar for a few seconds in the microwave if it’s hard and then press it through with a fork to be sure there are no lumps.

Melted butter and brown sugar for orange upside down cake recipe by bake this cake

2. Prep the orange, and set aside:

Zest an orange with a zesting tool to achieve:
1 teaspoon finely zested (or finely minced) orange peel, somewhat packed into the spoon.

Peel the zested orange by cutting away all the skin and white parts.

Slice the zested orange into about 5 slices, removing any white parts that are showing.

Arrange the orange slices on the bottom of the dish over the brown sugar and butter.

Preparing orange for orange upside down cake by bake this cake

3. Prep the dry ingredients, and set aside:

In a large bowl, whisk (or sift):
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Whisking Dry Ingredients for Orange Upside Down Cake by bake this cake

4. Prep the butter, sugar and eggs:

In a small to medium-sized bowl (or frosting bowl), use an electric mixer to beat on high-speed for about 2 minutes:
1/4 cup unsalted butter (half cube)

Beat into the creamed butter on high-speed for about 2 minutes:
1/2 cup sugar (we increased the amount of sugar from the original recipe)

Beat into the creamed butter-sugar on high-speed for about 2 minutes:
1 large egg

Creaming Butter Sugar and Egg for Orange Upside Down Cake by bake this cake

5. Mix it all up:

In the large mixing bowl with dry ingredients, add and beat on low-speed for about 1 minute until just thoroughly incorporated:
the prepared butter-sugar-egg mixture
1/4 cup milk (we used 2%)
the prepare orange zest

Mixing Batter for Orange Upside Down Cake by bake this cake

6. Spread the batter over the brown-sugar, butter and orange slices.

Using a spatula, spread the thick batter carefully over the orange slices. Pretend like you’re frosting a cake and try not to get any “crumbs” of brown sugar into the batter.

Batter over oranges for orange upside down cake by bake this cake

7. Bake it up:

Place the baking dish on the center rack of your oven that has been pre-heated to 375 degrees and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes. The cake will be done when it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Hot Homemade Orange Upside Down Cake by bake this cake

8. Prepare a warm honey orange soaking sauce:

This sauce should be ready to pour over the cake as soon as the cake comes out of the oven so I suggest preparing it a few minutes before the cake is done.

In a small sauce pot, heat on low (simmer) for about 5 minutes:
1/3 cup honey (we used Tupelo honey ’cause it’s my favorite)
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (strained of seeds and pulp)

orange honey cake sauce collage by bake this cake

8. Remove and flip it while it’s hot:

When the cake is hot from the oven, use a knife to cut around the rim of the cake to loosen the edges. Use oven mittens to carefully flip the cake onto your chosen serving dish being careful not to splash any hot bubbling sugar. I used a large 10-1/2″ shallow ceramic tart pan to hold the soaker sauce.

Vintage Orange Upside Down Cake overhead shot bake this cake

9. Pour warm soaker sauce over the cake:

Drizzle the warm sauce over the cake and let the soaking magic happen. You might poke some holes in the cake, though it seems soft enough to soak on its own. It can soak for 10 minutes or overnight.

Orange Upside Down Cake recipe in orange honey soaker sauce by bake this cake

10. Serving suggestions:

You could go the extra mile and add brandy to the soaker sauce or even lightly broil the tops of the orange slices as a final flourish. I also like the idea of serving it with a dollop of chantilly (fruit sweetened whipped cream) or a small scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.

I hope this charming little vintage cake will bring some delicious American history home to your own special kitchen.

Slice of homemade vintage orange upside down cake by bake this cake

Thank you for joining me on our little history adventure with a tip of the hat to WWII Flight Nurses and to modern flight nurses (male and female) across the land.

Be sure to join us on Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram for some photo inspiration.


Leslie Macchiarella photo by Julie Macchiarella

You may also enjoy reading:

Vintage Crushed Pineapple Cake (bakethiscake.com)

Helen of Troy Orange Cake (bakethiscake.com)

Fresh Banana Frosting for Betty’s Banana Layer Cake (bakethiscake.com)

Black Bananas for a Sweet and Dark Banana Bread (bakethisbread.com)

19 thoughts on “A Charming Honey Orange Upside-Down Cake to Share with Family

    • Hi Joanne, So nice to have you here. I’m not really sure this particular cake will do well with freezing. I worry about the orange slices in butter and brown sugar. But maybe if you don’t flip over the cake after baking and freeze it right then (after a cool down) then, upon unfreezing, you might warm it in the oven to release the butter and juices. You’d have to flip it and soak it in the soaker sauce at that point. If you try that, please let us know how it works or what adjustments may be needed. Best, Leslie

  1. Love this and will try it soon. Hearing the story about Ethel is great. She was a step mother (since she was my father’s second wife). Jean Marie and i became close later in life so I didn’t get to know her mother. Have you added this story to the family tree?

    • Hey cousin (well, step-cousin), 🙂 I have added some info but, you’re right, I should update the family tree with what I’ve found here. Good thinking! I love working on the family tree (though I only seem to be able to come to it a couple of times a year). Big hugs, Leslie

  2. Wow! What a cool concept, I love it! Found you on Pinterest. This one is DEFINITELY a keeper, and I’ll definitely be back for more. I love how you’ve paired a historic recipe with a little dab of fascinating family back-story. So cool! Thanks!

    • Hi, Rachael, Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ve updated the Clementine Cake recipe to show the orange zest added in at Step 5 when you mix it all up. Your comment is SO much appreciatd! Happy holidays! Leslie

  3. I see you aren’t using shortening as in the original recipe, sounds great! I love orange as much as pineapple so I like this variation of a vintage recipe, great job Leslie!

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