The History of Pineapple Upside Down Cake

In the days before ovens were common in homes, cakes were baked in skillets over a fire. The Pineapple Upside Down cake, a luscious golden caramelly cake, was born from this tradition and lives on as the most famous version of it today.

Sweet cakes baked over a fire could be put into a cake tin and baked within a dutch oven, surrounded by hot coals. The skillet cake simply baked in a skillet over the coals. The fancy toppings started on the bottom of the skillet and when the whole cake got released from the skillet to become “right side up”, the toppings were the star of the show. When pineapple came into vogue, there was nothing more stunning than rings of the rare tropical fruit.

Once pineapple was easy to get in cans, a star was born! Let’s learn about upside down cakes and then make a few ourselves. And make a note that April 20 is National Pineapple Upside Down Cake Day!

Skillet Cakes

Before modern stoves and ovens, food was cooked over a fire in a fireplace. Pots and pans were generally made of heavy cast iron, not too different from the cast iron pans you might have your kitchen right now. Dutch ovens were large pots with extra heavy lids that doubled as a cooking pot as well as an oven. You could make a pie or cake or tart or quick breads and put them in a smaller tin. That tin would go into the dutch oven and the heavy lid would be placed on top. Coals from the fire would be pulled forward and the Dutch oven was placed over the coals. (Dutch ovens either had their own little legs, or they were put on top of a stand.) More coals would then be piled up on the lid to create heat from top and bottom. This would bake your cake or pie very nicely.

Both images used with Creative Commons license.

Another way to bake a cake was in a skillet and a lovely way to make a fancier cake was to incorporate lovely fruits into it. You could chop up fruits and nuts and put them into the batter, this was fairly common, especially using dried and or candied fruits. (Fruitcake anyone?) The much more interesting and, frankly fabulous way to do it was to cook fresh fruit in sugary syrup, then layer the cake batter over it. The skillet was put over coals and the cake was baked. When finished baking, the cake was then turned “right side up” on a plate with the fruit now the cake topping with the sweet hot syrup acting almost as an icing. YUM!

photo by loslazos via CC license

The french tart tartin (apple tart) is a skillet or upside down cake from way back. These are more “tart” than “cake” as we know it – with a thinner crust instead of a risen cake. And of course the variations for a fruit skillet cake were endless – apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries and berries of all kinds could be made into a skillet cake. It makes for a dramatic reveal as well as the potential for unique designs of the fruit.

Dole Pineapple Enters The Chat

We talked a bit about James Dole coming to Hawai’i and his amazing success with pineapples in this blog post and in this blog post. Suffice to say, canned pineapple was widely available by the end of World War I and in 1925 the Dole company created a baking contest to find the best cake recipe using its pineapples. Over 2000 recipes for pineapple upside down cake (good old fashioned skillet cake now made with easily available pineapple) were sent in and one was chosen as the winner. To this day, almost 100 years later, if you say “upside down cake” people will assume you mean “pineapple”. Such was the power and popularity of Dole Pineapple.

The 1950’s Would Like A Word

World War II ended in 1945 and it took a while for life to get back to normal. Millions of soldiers had spent years in the Pacific and the island themed Tiki craze exploded back in the states in the late 1940’s and especially in the 1950’s. Anything tropical or exotic was a big hit. Couple that with the fact that food was no longer rationed – especially sugar – and you had the perfect moment for the resurgence of the pineapple upside down cake. The fruit was tropical – pineapples and cherries (are cherries really tropical though?) and the cakes were made with plenty of sugar. Thirty years after that came another big splash thanks to the Dole recipe contest and the sunshiney yellow cakes were a hit once again.

OMG are you hungry for cake? I AM! let’s bake a couple!

For the record, I’d like to note that this isn’t a food blog, so my pics might not be as fabulous as you’ve seen on other blogs.

King Arthur Flour Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Let’s start with a more modern version of the recipe. Here is the link to the recipe I made. This recipe calls for a cake pan (either 8″ or 9″)(20 or 22cm) instead of a cast iron skillet. Not everyone has a cast iron skillet so this makes it easy. I’m worried that it will be missing the lovely crispy edges that a cast iron pan gives the cake. Let’s see what we get.

Quick aside for cake pans – LOOK at this fabulous one from Nordic! Not only does it have little molded pineapple rings on the bottom but it is Mint Green. MINT. GREEN. I would like it very much.

We start with making the brown sugar and butter syrup.

Next up -get that syrup into the buttered pan and snuggle the pineapples and cherries into the syrup. The only disappointing thing is that the pineapple is so pale when it comes out of the can. Later though, you won’t mind at all…

Oh also, I only had these Amarena cherries on hand. No problem though – Super yum.

Next we make the batter and layer it over the pineapple, cherries, and syrup. I got to pull Faithful Bessie off the shelf to mix it up. She’s 20 years old and needs some overhauling, but she gets the job done. And yes, she is wearing a rainbow sticker!

Now we wait….but not long! Only 30-35 minutes. I waited 35 and it got a touch browner than I expected. But who cares! That’s the BOTTOM of the cake!

Then carefully turn it over onto a platter…give it 30 seconds to let gravity do its thing…

Voila! It worked!! Okay, there was a small mishap, but sooooo easily fixed and who would ever know? I wanted to show you that sometimes this stuff happens, then you just slap it back on and all is well.

And I can attest that OMFG IT IS SOOOOO GOOD! The pineapples are nice and golden, the cake is moist and not too sweet. And I was afraid, making in the cake pan, that it would not have the crispy edges you get in the cast iron pan. But it does! Not all the way around, but enough so that you feel you got your crispy edge need fulfilled.

This is an excellent excellent cake and I would make it again and again. Some recipes call for nuts, and I like nuts, but I like this cake just the way it is without nuts.

The Winning Dole Pineapple Recipe for Pineapple Upside Down Cake (1925)

Let’s try the original even though as we’ve just learned, it wasn’t **really** the original.

Here is the link to the recipe on the Dole site

The recipe calls for basically the same ingredients and starts off similarly – melt the butter and brown sugar in the cast iron pan, then put the pineapple and cherries in. But surprise! This recipe calls for Lemon! A bit of zest and a bit of juice. These go into the sugar/butter mixture with the egg yolks. Ahh, there’s Bessie, hard at work!

Then you add the dry ingredients and make a dough – then another curve ball: beat the egg yolks until you get soft peaks, then add sugar to make stiff peaks, then fold into the cake batter. Cover the sugar butter pineapples and cherries (note the ooozing up of the melted butter on the side!) then into the oven she goes.

Wait patiently – again, about 35 minutes. When the timer went off, I did a toothpick cake check and it came out clean. I was hesitant though, as it was not as brown the first one. But then again, I thought that first one was tooooo brown. Hmmm. I pulled it out, let it sit for 10 minutes per the instructions, then came the magic of right side upping it. Look at that hot steam coming off it! mmm

Flipping anything over from a hot cast iron pan is tricky, full stop. And while there was no major error, I did get a nice pattern on the plate from the de-skillet-ing.

I believe it is a tad underbaked, a bit stodgy. But still really delicious. And the lemon gives it a zing along with the pineapple. Though the pineapple ends up being more sweet than tart. It’s a nice combo, though.

The Winner Is

For me – just me! I like the King Arthur version a bit better. There is something simple yet luscious about it. The cake and syrup fruit combo work to well. And since you can get a nice crust in a cake pan, no reason not to use it!

So there you have it. The history of Pineapple Updside Down Cake (which I now refer to as PUD Cake) and two versions of the cake. It’s really really easy (especially if you use the King Arthur recipe) and the cake comes out GREAT!

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