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A new generation discovers pineapple upside-down cake

Pineapple upside-down cake is making a comeback. Whether it's the return of the Hawaiian shirt, the season's dressy-casual choice for men, or simply a case of young cooks discovering one of their grandparents' favorite desserts, this tropical classic is in.

In Southern homes, pineapple upside-down cake was usually served at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Why? Because the pineapple was the symbol of hospitality in the South.

Southerners roll out the carpet for grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors during the holidays, and pineapple upside-down cake connoted Southern graciousness. Elsewhere, pineapple upside-down cake showed up any time of the year.

The pretty cake, sometimes called a "skillet cake," is also a favorite with kids. An elementary-school cafeteria manager once told me that school cooks for years relied on generous servings of pineapple upside-down cake to redeem their "worst" lunch days. She said kids love maraschino cherries.

The earliest pineapple upside-down cake recipes showed up in cookbooks in the mid-1920s, but the history of commercial pineapples goes back a few more years.

The pineapple, a tropical fruit native to the Americas, was first discovered by Christopher Columbus on the island of Guadeloupe in 1493. According to The Dictionary of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani, the luscious-tasting fruit was widely dispersed throughout Asia's tropics by the late 1500s.

The fruit was introduced to Hawaii by Capt. James Cook in 1790, but it was not commercially cultivated there at first because of the difficulty of shipping between the islands and the U.S. mainland. In the 1880s, steamship transportation enabled widespread pineapple cultivation, and Hawaiian growers expanded their pineapple acreage.

In 1899, an entrepreneurial Harvard graduate, James Dole, went to Hawaii to make his fortune. Within a short time, he was growing and canning pineapples, and in 1903, with the help of an inventive engineer in his employ, he developed a machine that could peel, core and turn out a hundred whole pineapple cylinders a minute. By 1921, Dole Food Co. had established the fruit as the largest crop in those islands.

The American Century Cookbook by Jean Anderson suggests that cookbooks published by the Dole company and Gold Medal Flour in 1925 and 1926 helped popularize the recipe for pineapple upside-down cake. The timing makes sense, Anderson wrote, because perfectly cut canned pineapple rings had only recently become available across the United States.

While the ingredients for pineapple upside-down cake were somewhat of a luxury during the Depression, the attractive cake became a favorite with home cooks after World War II. Now, it's a hit with those cooks' grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

\ cup butter

firmly packed light brown sugar

20-ounce can pineapple slices, undrained

9 maraschino cherries

2 large eggs, separated

} cup granulated sugar

} cup all-purpose flour

[ teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon baking powder

Melt butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet. Spread brown sugar evenly over bottom of skillet.

Drain pineapple, reserving \ cup juice; set juice aside.

Arrange pineapple slices in a single layer over brown sugar mixture and place a cherry in center of each pineapple ring; set skillet aside.

Beat egg yolks at medium speed with an electric mixer until thick and lemon-colored; gradually add granulated sugar, beating well.

Heat reserved pineapple juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Gradually add juice to the yolk mixture, beating until well blended. Combine all-purpose flour, salt and baking powder; add dry ingredients to the yolk mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; fold egg whites into batter. Spoon batter evenly over pineapple slices.

Bake at 325 F for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in skillet 30 minutes; invert cake onto a serving plate.

Source: Southern Living magazine, March 2003, attributed to "My Mother's Southern Desserts" by James and Martha Pearl Villas

Pineapple gives this dessert a tropical taste (and kids like the cherries).