RECIPES: Upside-down cakes

Great ideas seem to arrive all at once, and that was certainly true in the 1890s, when two sisters in France named Tatin invented an upside-down apple tart, made with pie crust, and the Dole family in Hawaii created a recipe for an upside-down cake made with their new product, canned pineapples. (Until canning was invented, pineapples were a luxury, and eaten fresh; brought back from South America by Portuguese and British sailors,
they’d been grown in hothouses in Europe since the 17th Century, long before being introduced into Hawaii.)

Pineapple upside-down cake was one of the few things my mother could decently cook, which, if you knew my mother’s cooking, would tell you everything you need to know about how easy it is. It seems to have fallen out of favor in the last few decades (perhaps Dole’s marketing department is concentrating on promoting pineapple-and-ham pizza, which my son persists in trying to get in Italian restaurants, to no avail). It’s still delicious, easy, and the upside-down aspect works quite well with other fruits--I’ve listed some variations after the basic recipe.

I cook it in my cast-iron skillet, which works perfectly well, but any heavy baking pan will do (it needs to be heavy so the sugar and fruit don’t burn). The batter is pretty much a standard mix, and can be flavored in a variety of ways, either by using different spices or, as here, a little of the leftover pineapple juice from the can. Some people like to put maraschino cherries in the centers of the pineapple slices, but I think it makes it too sweet, as well as being a touch too much—gilding the lily, and girlly.

makes one nine-inch cake

1 can (20-oz.) sliced, unsweetened pineapple in juice
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup milk, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup self-raising flour
3 tbsp pineapple juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pineapple slices on sheets of paper towels to drain (this helps the baking). Put 2 tablespoons of butter in a 9-by-2-inch baking pan and melt it, either by placing briefly in the oven or on the stovetop. Tilt to coat the sides of the pan. Sprinkle the bottom of the pan evenly with the brown sugar. Place a pineapple ring in the center of the bottom of the pan, and arrange the other slices around it. You’ll have some left over; simply cut into wedges and fill the spaces around the slices.

In a large bowl, mix the remaining butter and the sugar (mashing together with a fork works well). In a small bowl, beat the eggs, add a splash of milk, the vanilla extract, and pineapple juice, stir, and add to the butter and sugar, mixing well. Then add the flour and whisk it all together into a soft batter. (A hand-held mixer makes this easier, but a wire whisk and good wrist action does it just fine.)

Pour the batter over the fruit, smoothing it out, and place in the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for a few minutes, shaking the pan from side to side to loosen the cake. Then place a large plate or platter on top of the pan and, wearing oven mitts, quickly turn the whole thing over; the cake will drop from the pan onto the plate. The cake will be moist and fluffy at this point, but settles and shrinks slightly as it cools, becoming firmer.

VARIATIONS: Instead of simple milk, blend ¼ cup coconut milk (available in Asian markets in small cans) with ¼ cup milk.

Fresh apples: Make the batter first, adding ½ teaspoon of cinnamon before whisking. Then peel, core and slice the apples and place on the sugared pan; scattering pecans between the apple slices is a nice addition. Golden Delicious or Rome Beauty work well.

Peaches are really versatile for this recipe. Use canned sliced peaches, drained, in winter, and fresh peeled and sliced peaches in summer.

In Georgia, I once had a pineapple upside-down cake made with cornmeal—delicious! It was probably a mix of cornmeal and plain flour with baking powder and baking soda to make it rise. I’m not a confident enough baker to wing it, but if you are, it’s worth pursuing.

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