Yesterday I taught one of my favorite classes—Classic Home-style Desserts. All of the recipes in this class satisfy my craving for the simple homemade—or classic diner-style—desserts of my childhood: spicy gingerbread, jam-filled sugar cookies, coconut cream pie, butterscotch custard, and pineapple upside-down cake. I have already posted most of these recipes. Today I thought I would share my newly re-worked recipe for pineapple upside-down cake. I have been making and teaching this cake for years. Recently however I began to find fault with it. It was very good...but had what I considered to be a few flaws.
The cake portion of a pineapple upside-down cake can be made with almost any simple yellow butter cake. In its original form the cake was made with canned pineapple rings so it is not uncommon to find older recipes that incorporate some of the canned juice in the batter. Alice Waters (in her book Chez Panisse Fruit) uses a half recipe of the classic 1-2-3-4 butter cake (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs). For years I used a buttermilk version of this cake in my upside-down cake. It is a fine, basic butter cake. Unfortunately it is so light and tender that it isn't always successful in an upside-down cake. It can be a bit crumb-y...wanting to tear and fall apart under the weight of the pineapple. Cutting neat slices can be difficult. It also tends to dry out rapidly (this particular cake really does need to be covered with frosting), making for a cake that should be eaten within a few hours of being baked—which is impractical most of the time...and compounds its tendency to crumble.
As I thought about modifying my recipe it occurred to me that what I really wanted was a sour cream-based butter cake. Using sour cream will retain the flavor profile of the buttermilk cake, and at the same time will produce a tender but firm cake...one that slices neatly and cleanly.
As a bonus, the sour cream cake will be a bit richer due to the increased percentage of butterfat. All of this makes for a perfect match for the syrup-y pineapple topping. Rose Beranbaum in her book The Cake Bible uses a sour cream cake. And as it turns out, my favorite sour cream cake (that I use in my pear and walnut-topped streusel coffee cake) was originally adapted from Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake (published in Baking with Julia). I don't know why I haven't been using this cake all along.
Not only is the sour cream version of this cake better when it is fresh, like all sour cream cakes, it keeps well too. It is still delicious the day after it is made, and is moist enough to withstand a brief reheat (since pineapple upside-down cake really is best when it's warm). If you have leftovers after that, simply freeze them. Cut the remaining cake into individual portions, wrap them and place in a Tupperware or a Zip-lock freezer bag and freeze. These slices are great to have on hand for a bite with afternoon tea or coffee...and I can say from personal experience that they make a pretty fine breakfast.
In one way—and it is significant—this cake is quite different from the upside-down cakes of my childhood. I use fresh pineapple. You can use canned...and your cake will still be good...but fresh pineapple makes a superior cake in every way. Since it hasn't been subjected to the canning process, the slices of pineapple are still loaded with all of their juice and flavor. There is no need to incorporate any juice in the batter (as in older recipes) since the juice inherent in the fresh pineapple will permeate and perfume the cake as it bakes. Furthermore, using fresh pineapple will allow you to slice the fruit in such a way that there are no gaps in the topping (as from the holes in canned pineapple slices), necessitating the addition of traditional foreign elements like prunes, pecans or—heaven forbid—maraschino cherries (who thought of that?).
The fresh pineapple is very easy to prepare. Lay the pineapple on its side
and slice off the top and the bottom. Then, stand the pineapple on end and slice away the rind (in much the same way that you would slice the rind away from a piece of citrus fruit). If there are any especially deep "eyes", just gouge them out with the tip of a paring knife. Cut the pineapple straight down through the core into quarters. Slice the core away from each quarter.
You will need two of the quarters for the cake (slice or dice the other two and put them in a Tupperware for fruit salads or snacking). Lay the quarters down on their sides and slice cross-wise into scant 1/4-inch thick slices.
These slices are then shingled in a circle around the perimeter of the pan and then shingled attractively to fill in the center.
This manner of preparing the pineapple is the one thing I retained from my original cake. I have always loved it. Like the original cake itself, it was inspired by Alice Waters' recipe. Moreover, it was perfect just the way it was. I am so pleased with my new version of this old favorite. Now, not only is the topping impressively beautiful, it is supported by a correspondingly delicious cake.
Fresh Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
4 T. unsalted butter
3/4 c. brown sugar
half of a fresh pineapple, split lengthwise, cored, peeled and sliced crosswise into scant 1/4-inch thick slices (you will need a scant pound of trimmed pineapple slices)
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet set over low heat, melt the butter. Add the sugar, increase the heat to medium and stir until the sugar has melted into the butter. Remove from the heat. Arrange as many of the pineapple slices as will fit in an overlapping circle around the edge of the pan (overlap the narrow portion of each successive pineapple slice over the wider side of the previous slice). Arrange as many of the remaining slices as will fit in an overlapping, decorative fashion in the center. Set aside.
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200 g.)
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 c. sugar (200 g.)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1 c. sour cream (242 g.)
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy—this will take several minutes at medium-high speed using the paddle attachment. Stop the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides before each addition. Beat in the vanilla; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Fold in the dry ingredients in 3 additions alternately with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
Spread the batter evenly over the pineapple in the prepared pan.
Bake in a 350° oven until the cake is springy to the touch, has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 40 to 50 minutes. Let the cake rest for 5 minutes in the pan.
Carefully run a small, thin spatula around the edge of the pan to make sure the cake isn't stuck to the sides. Place a cake plate upside down on top of the skillet and holding the cake plate firmly to the skillet, flip the cake over. Carefully lift the skillet away. If any fruit sticks to the pan, simply tuck it back onto the top of the cake.
Cool at least an hour before serving. Cut the cake with a long, thin bladed slicing knife, using a gentle back and forth sawing motion to cut through the pineapple.
Makes one 10-inch cake, serving 10 to 12.
(Topping from Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters; Cake adapted from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan)