Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sunny Side Up (Pineapple Upside-Down Cake)

Pineapple upside-down cake is amazing. Don't get me wrong; I think lots of cakes are amazing, but this one definitely has a little something special. Growing up, it was my father's favorite and requisite for each of his birthdays (conveniently in May). As a child, I protested the lack of icing, which is kind of silly, because pineapple upside-down cake's appeal is a luscious caramel topping that makes icing wholly unnecessary. There's a kind of witchery that occurs in the baking, whereby the oozing caramel fuses into the cake itself to provide a layer of incalculably succulent sweetness. In a fit of nostalgia, I baked it for my sister-in-law Sarah's birthday, as a little something different.

See the difference?
Pineapple upside-down cake is a classic dessert ideal for winter and spring as the pineapple will always be available canned . Part of me wonders if the recipe wasn't in fact invented by the preserved fruit industry. Nuclear red cherries and limp slices of tinny pineapple aren't inherent requirements of the recipe, though. Grab the can in a pinch, but the beauty of this version lies in a rustic mosaic of freshly chopped pineapple.

Easy as 1-2-3
To quickly dress down your pineapple, start by slicing off the base and spiky cap. Then run your knife down each side, slicing away ribbons of the tough and woodsy skin. Pineapples are actually a conglomeration of berries and this fused structure results in dark portions of tough skin penetrating deeper into the flesh than one might expect. These individual spots can be quickly scooped out with a small knife or spoon, or just cut deep enough to ensure any brown pieces are sliced away. Quarter the pineapple lengthwise, then slice diagonally across the central rib of each piece to remove the core.

Better with butter
I believe the pineapple upside-down cake my mom bakes each year is the traditional Betty Crocker recipe, so that's where I started for perfecting my version. In addition to swapping out fresh pineapple for canned, cake flour results in a finer texture and more tender crumb than standard, an extra egg provides more richness, and coconut milk provides a silkier alternative to dairy. To prove there's no kill like overkill, I decided to add a final bath in a glaze of dark rum and fragrant spices to play against the acid sweetness of the pineapple. This lends a liquid, lacquered armor to the cake; locking in moisture and preserving the delicate fluffiness within.

Gooey deliciousness
Pineapple upside-down cake, spiced rum glaze
Adapted from Betty Crocker

Though heavy beating may seem counter-intuitive, here it's important as it helps achieve an even texture and whip air into the eggs and shortening.

For the topping:
1/4 c (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 c lightly-packed brown sugar
1/2 fresh pineapple, peeled, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced

For the cake:
1 1/3 c cake flour
1 c granulated sugar
1/3 c shortening
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
3/4 c light coconut milk (regular, if you're feeling extravagant)
1 tbs vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Rum glaze:
1/4 c dark spiced rum
3 tbs lightly-packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tbs butter

Place the butter in a 9-inch round cake pan, pop it into the oven, and preheat to 350 F, but be ready to grab the pan as soon as the oven comes to temperature. The butter solids should be light, toasty brown and emit a heavenly aroma. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the browned butter, then arrange the pineapple slices over the sugar.

Browned butter meets browned sugar
In a medium bowl, beat the flour, sugar, shortening, baking powder, and salt with an electric mixer on low speed until the shortening has been mostly broken up into small pieces.

In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the coconut milk, vanilla, and eggs together until smooth, then stream slowly into the bowl, while beating on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly.

Whip to soft peaks
Beat on high speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally, until light and fluffy and forming ribbony swirls. Scrape batter out over pineapple slices.

A solid rap on the counter should dispel any errant air bubbles
 Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out mostly clean, with just a couple loose, clinging crumbs. Carefully place a heatproof serving plate upside down over pan, then invert, so the pan is turned upside-down over the plate. Leave pan over cake for a few minutes, so the caramel can drizzle down over cake; then remove pan.

Dripping with anticipation
To make the rum glaze, combine the ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to light boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer until the mixture is reduced by half and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Drizzle the glaze over the hot cake, basting with a pastry brush to ensure an even coat.

Good to the last drop
Serve warm. Store cake loosely covered.


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