The Town Crier’s Food & Wine section solicits stories of local food experiments and traditions. Reader Mark Wagner took the bait last spring and shared the story of introducing Californians to a strange cuisine from a strange land: the good old-fashioned pineapple upside-down cake.
His in-laws, Grace and Lester Libby, lived on Miranda Way in Los Altos for nearly 50 years before moving to a condo at Parc Regent. Grace pined for a slice of Wagner’s traditional birthday treat – the aforementioned pineapple cake – but Wagner was in Cincinnati and she was in Los Altos. He started calling around to Safeway, Draeger’s Market and local bakeries to see who could provide a local slice.
“They had never heard of pineapple upside-down cake,” he said, incredulous. “But I found out that if I got a package to the post office of the Greater Cincinnati airport by 9 p.m., it would be delivered in Los Altos by noon the next day, so that’s what I did.”
The next time Wagner and his wife, Valerie, visited Los Altos, they went to Safeway and stocked up on pineapple, cherries and cake mix. A cashier from Mississippi guessed what was afoot. Soon after, eight upside-down cakes arrived at the Parc Regent condos for breakfast.
Spreading the word
The Wagners, who still subscribe to the Town Crier from their home in Cincinnati, felt that Los Altos could use a lesson in skillet-based desserts.
“Pineapple upside-down cake is a pretty big deal around here,” Wagner said of the Midwest. “Maybe it never made the trip across the Rockies?”
He mailed a box of cake mix and a hand-annotated recipe to the Town Crier’s newsroom to expand his message of sliced pineapple to a broader readership.
“I usually just follow the Betty Crocker recipe – butter, brown sugar, pineapple and cherries – because I try and do things simply,” Wagner said. “But believe it or not, out here there is a Duncan Hines Pineapple Supreme cake mix.
He suggests that those who dislike cherries experiment with using crushed pineapple chunks in lieu of cherry-snugging slices of pineapple. Those with a scouting background might like baking their cake in a Dutch oven – perhaps even over an open fire.
This particular cake dates back to the 1920s, when James Dole’s pineapple canning business took off in Hawaii and American cooks had a new fruit to play with in their baking. Before then, upside-down cakes often used apple (the tarte tatin), cherry, plum, apricot or – in more tropical regions – bananas.
All skillet cakes have a concept in common: lining a baking dish with fruit and sugar, topping it with cake batter and serving the final product flipped to reveal a pattern of fruit and caramelized, sugary juices atop the pastry. These frosting-free cakes require less fruit than a pie or cobbler (and no rolling out dough), and can change to suit the best fruit of any week all summer. Or, in the case of pineapple, as long as a can of slices can be found.
Local readers can find an easy variant on the Wagner family’s preferred recipe at bettycrocker.com – it calls for brown sugar, pineapple, maraschino cherries, butter and plain yellow cake mix. For those who want to head back in time, food historian Karen Hammonds has adapted a version of the original winning cake recipe from the 1925 Hawaiian Pineapple Company Recipe Contest. You can find it at revolutionarypie.com.