The cake preferred by men of a certain age
I’m not sure what it is about dudes who grew up in the 70’s, but in the last five months I have had two requests from two separate guys for pineapple upside-down cake on their respective birthdays. Both of them loved it growing up, and both of them said that they hadn’t enjoyed a slice since their mothers passed away. You’ve got to respect a cake that instills that kind of nostalgia.
I made my first ever pineapple upside-down cake the day after my final PhD defense, a day in which I also assembled this monster of a cake. We were having a double party for my defense and for one of the aforementioned birthdays, and I had promised my guests multiple cakes. After baking, assembling, frosting, and ganache-ing the monster layer cake that was my defense celebration cake, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pineapple upside-down cake is about as simple as it gets.
You’re going to need one bit of special equipment for this cake – at least it is unusual for me, a girl who was raised cooking with Teflon. That is, you’re going to need a cast iron skillet. I’ve been lucky enough to, uh, have one “on loan” from my boyfriend’s massive cast iron collection for the past few months, since he was the one to request the cake the first time around. The pan I borrowed is a real beauty – it was his grandmother’s, and it has such a lovely patina from decades of use. I’m sure I’ll eventually need to acquire a cast-iron skillet of my own, but luckily you can find a lot of these antique beauties on eBay, or buy a new one for pretty cheap from Lodge. Seasoning of cast iron is pretty interesting and I’ll have to come back to it in a later post, but for now just make sure you follow the seasoning instructions included with a new pan, even if it claims to be pre-seasoned.
Both of the cake recipients reported that their mothers used plain ol’ yellow cake mix for the cake part, and did not bake the cake in a cast-iron skillet. This recipe makes the cake part from scratch, and comes from Alton Brown’s baking book, I’m Just Here for More Food. Although I am a huge fan of yellow cake from a box + chocolate frosting from a can, this recipe demands something different. In AB’s recipe, cake part is slightly denser and drier and not as sweet as something you’d find from a box. Considering the cup of brown sugar and entire stick of butter that composes the upside-down part, I think it is better that the base is less like birthday cake and more like cornbread (and there is actually another recipe for pineapple upside-down cornmeal cake, also by AB).
Even without using a mix, the cake comes together very quickly. The butter is melted in the skillet, and the brown sugar is incorporated to make something like a slurry. The goal here is not to caramelize the sugar – that magic will happen during the baking process. The pineapple rings and maraschino cherries are arranged in the sugar slurry, and topped with pecans and pineapple juice. The batter is assembled via the muffin method, which requires you to mix all of the dry ingredients and all of the wet (including sugar!) ingredients separately, and then combine the two with just a few quick stirs in order to ensure that very little gluten is formed in the process. (Just say no to chewy cakes!) The entire skillet is then deposited in the oven – and after baking, once the volcanic caramel has cooled slightly, all that remains is a brave flip onto a serving platter and upside-down cake is served.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from I’m Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown
Note: You will need pineapple juice for both the upside-down part and the cake part, and the respective amounts are listed separately for each part. In total you will need 8 Tablespoons, but I couldn’t find any sort of reasonable quantity of pineapple juice at the store, so I ended up buying a 6-pack of tiny pineapple juice cans. So I just need to make 4 more cakes, right?
The Upside-Down Part
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
7 pineapple rings, canned in heavy syrup
7 maraschino cherries (buy the stemless cherries, they are cheaper and you obviously don’t need the stems)
1/4 cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons pineapple juice
The Cake Part
1 cup (4.75 oz) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, large
5 Tablespoons pineapple juice
1 cup granulated sugar
Mix The Dry and Wet Ingredients Separately
1. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and whisk together.
2. Combine eggs, sugar and 5 T of the pineapple juice in a large bowl and whisk together.
3. Set both mixtures aside and proceed to the upside-down part.
Make the Upside-Down Part
1. Place the oven rack in the center and preheat to 350 °F/175 °C
2. Melt the butter in the cast-iron skillet over medium-low to medium heat. Add the dark brown sugar and stir until incorporated, 4-5 minutes. Turn the heat to low once the brown sugar is completely mixed with the butter
3. Place one pineapple ring in the center of the pan, and encircle it with the remaining pineapple rings. Place one maraschino cherry inside each pineapple ring.
4. Sprinkle the pecans over the top of the pineapple rings, and gently pour the 3 T of pineapple juice over the top of the mixture in the skillet.
Mix The Batter
1. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir briefly to combine. Be careful not to overmix – make sure the flour is incorporated, but there will be lumps.
2. Gently pour the batter over top of the pineapple rings in the cast-iron skillet, and it should spread to cover the fruit. Don’t worry if a few pecans float to the sides or top.
3. Place the skillet in a preheated 350 °F/175 °C oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes clean, or the cake registers 210 °F/99 °C.
4. Once removed from the oven, allow the skillet to cool slightly. Place a serving platter over the top of the skillet, and using an oven mitt, invert the skillet onto the platter. This can get a little messy, as the cake will leak caramel all over the place if you miss the center of the plate!
The cake will keep at room temperature, wrapped tightly or stored in an air-tight container, for up to 5 days.