*This is a peice of fiction I once did for an assignment after being inspired to bake after watching GBBO. However, having very little baking ability, and none of the ingredients, I decided to make up an imaginary character and write about it instead. I saw a recipe for this pineapple one and thought, if you ever got the same baking bug you might want to try it out. You never know, it may perk up a gloomy Winter’s day. The original recipe is from Nigella, but for the sake of copyright I changed it so probably don’t try my rendition. Try hers, I bet it’s great because everything Nigella is impeccable. Link here: https://www.nigella.com/recipes/pineapple-upside-down-cake *
Every year when I was a child my parents would go away by themselves in the summer holidays and leave my brother and I at our grandparent’s house in The Midlands. My Grandad usually dragged my brother to some football game leaving me with my nan, who didn’t drive and didn’t particularly like to stray from the house in her old age unless accompanied. They lived on a rough estate where stabbings and drug-abuse were not uncommon. It was very culturally diverse; I remember thinking it felt like several different countries had been squeezed together onto one estate. Meanwhile, I came from a small town in Oxfordshire where, apart from a few Polish residents that ran the local corner shop, most of the inhabitants were white, middle-class and British. Rather than living in a city built of concrete, I stepped out of my house only to be greeted by fields where you could roam for hours, picking blackberries and cooking apples in August to make the perfect crumble.
For me, it was always a shock to the system visiting such a place and, as a child my naivety caused this to leave me unsettled, wanting to sleep in my Grandad’s bed until I was ten because he was a retired policeman who practised martial arts so I thought he’d protect me well in the incident of a break in. As a I grew older however, I came to enjoy my local visit to the get the paper from the nearby shop run by a Pakistan family who were always friendly. When Grandad hurt his leg when one year, I felt so brave going on my own, striding into the shop with my head high, knowing exactly what I wanted. They always asked if everyone was in good health and ended every visit with ‘God bless you.’ I looked forward to taking the dog for a walk at sunset where I’d bump into the Chinese couple across the road, whose names I never knew. We always talked for several minutes about how school was going and if I’d tried Wonton Soup yet; I now have, and it is by far one of my favourite dishes. My grandparent’s little estate was, for me, a holiday from home where class, racial and religious differences were thrown out the window and instead you were judged by how good a neighbour who were.
When I was six, we had an unusually wet Summer, grey clouds permanently covering the sky and the sound of rainfall becoming white noise in the background. The boys had gone out and my nan could tell by my loud sighs and fidgety feet that I was bored. Colouring pencils and bad TV didn’t ease my creative mind and boundless energy.
“Lets bake a cake!” she said.
“Bake a cake? What kind of cake?” I was puzzled. My nan was always regarded as a passionate cook, but a baker she was not. In fact, she had confessed on many occasions that baking was too scientific and restrictive whilst she enjoyed the freedom cooking provided. The ability to drift from the recipe or throw random things into a pot with a mere imagine in mind of the final product and somehow all would work out. This was not the case with baking, it required focus, precision and patience; all qualities my nan confessed she lacked.
“I don’t know, I think I saw a recipe for a pineapple cake in the paper. Sort of like an ‘end of summer’ cake. I think I have all the ingredients, except tinned pineapple rings, but I’m sure they sell them at the shop if you put a coat on.“ Within 5 minutes I was back, soaked to my skin and shivering, panting and proudly presenting the pineapple to my Nan who had already measured out the other ingredients.
Two hours and lots of love and concentration later, the cake was fresh from the oven, its citrusy aromas filling the kitchen. We let it cool and cut a slice to share, the sweet juices spilling down our face and into the warm, white sands of a tropical beach. It was delightful and for a small moment we were no longer in rainy England, but some exotic holiday resort, sunbathing and drinking fresh juice. The cake soon accompanied every family gathering and every year at the end of summer my nan and I would bake it whilst the boys were out. It was eaten at every celebration, during every sorrowful period, on every first day of school and the last, for every boyfriend and break up. The pineapple upside-down cake became the epitome of tradition and my nan became the family baker from that day on.
When I was fourteen my parents decided that my brother and I were old enough to look after ourselves and that was the first year of many years that I would not visit my grand-parents in the Summer. Soon my nan began to decline in health; the upside-down pineapple cake became my sole project in those dark days, and I would take it her in hospital to make her smile. I must confess that for a while my affections became divided between the pineapple cake and the banana loaf my mum made every Sunday evening to use up over-ripe bananas. It was so unambiguous, simple and easy to make with ingredients already in the pantry that it competed with the tropical fruit cake and its complexities. After a couple of years, the spongy delight began to bore me however, it reminded me of health cafes and leftovers rather than white sands, pina coladas and my nan. The natural golds and browns of the pineapple cake began to speak to me of their just-rightness once more.
Alas, there were many years when I couldn’t make this cake. Unthinkably, Nan’s little handwritten recipe note card disappeared with her death and the first few years of my adulthood cake-poor. I wanted to make it for my first boyfriend, my flatmates at university, my graduation but I knew no-one else who had the recipe and Google provided no answer to my searches. I searched for hours on end in every cookbook I stumbled across, but to no avail. This cake, the only cake I couldn’t reproduce, became my forbidden fruit, the apple to my Eve. I longed for it, daydreamed about it, and never came to terms with its loss.
I missed my erratic Nan and the Summers spent with her and as much as I adore to cook, I could never reciprocate he culinary capabilities. After all, she’s the one who first put the Joy of Cooking into my hands. She’s the one who bravely stuffed a suckling pig into our tiny oven one Christmas, a piglet that all of us refused to eat and convinced me to go vegetarian. She gave me my sense of fearlessness and adventure in the kitchen, for which I am profoundly thankful. Her most tangible legacy was that recipe card, and I had let it vanish.
One day, I mentioned the cake to a colleague explaining that the defining features of the cake were the addition of pineapple juice to the batter, the lightness of the beaten eggs whites and the fact it’s baked in a cast iron skillet. I went on to lament the fact that I still had my Nan’s very skillet that we had baked our first pineapple cake in which was gathering dust at the back of the kitchen cupboards; yet I did not possess the recipe. Then came the moment later that evening, so shocking and as sweet as the pineapples themselves, she emailed me with a link to a recipe and a ‘P.S. Could this be the one?!’ I don’t think there’s a word in English to describe the bliss induced by tasting a long-lost childhood food. Maybe it’s relief. I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if knowledge of the precise proportions of the cake’s nine ingredients set to rights a dessert universe that had been tilting along sadly, bereft of this confection. And I learned that, contrary to popular wisdom, yes, I could go visit Nan again. This was not to be one of those stories wherein the heroine returns to her childhood home and is amazed by how small and untidy everything is. The cake tasted just as it always had, just as it should.
I love baking, I still do it for my friends and family. I often make them fancy cakes; I love to bake them, and they love to eat them. But the one thing I don’t touch is Nan’s pineapple upside-down cake. Even though I have the recipe, I can’t bear to make it, nestling the fruit and nuts symmetrically into the warm topping, pouring the fluffy batter over it all. There’s no way I could duplicate the taste my nan had done for so many years.
So, if I could choose, this cake would be my last meal. And I don’t mean that I’d want a genteel slice as a part of a well-balanced plate containing all the food groups. I’d do my very best to eat the entire cake, all by myself. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. To peacefully drift away on a wave of pineapple, brown sugar, and pecans, time-traveling back to when I was a young girl first learning to work her magic in the kitchen with her Nanna. This cake is one that invites another bite, another slice. My Nanna’s been gone now for a few years, but this cake and the memories it holds will live on for many to come and every year, as Summer draws to a close, I will celebrate her life with a slice of pineapple cake.
The recipe: (serves 8)
AN: This cake should always be made in a cast-iron skillet; I still have my nans from years ago.
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 1 ½ cups firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 cup pecan halves
- 1 20 ounce can pineapple slices packed in juice, reserving 5 tablespoons juice
- 3 eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Melt the butter in a 9-inch cast iron skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir well to thoroughly combine, then turn off the heat. Arrange 7 pineapple slices in a single layer over the brown sugar mixture (your 9-inch skillet should accommodate 7 slices without overlapping). Fill the spaces between the pineapple rings with the pecans, centering one in the middle of each ring and arranging the rest as artistically as possible. Turn the pecans upside-down, so that they will be right side up when you invert the cake later. Set the skillet aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl; set aside.
Beat the egg yolks at medium speed until they are thick, and lemon coloured. Gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat. On low speed, add the flour mixture to the yolk mixture, and gently mix in the reserved pineapple juice.
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the cake batter. Pour or spoon the batter evenly over the pineapple slices.
Bake at 350°F for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the skillet for 30 minutes; then invert it onto a serving plate.
*Further notes: I learned that lining my iron skillet or any other container with parchment works very well for turning out the cake from pan. Sometimes a bit of the toffee/sugar stuff stays in the pan when I invert it, but I just scrape it all on to the hot cake and it all melts right in and once it’s cooled, you don’t notice.