American Baking Down the Decades, 1920-1929: cake meets technology

225-logoThe King Arthur Flour Company marks its 225th anniversary this year. And we’re celebrating by exploring some of America’s favorite recipes, decade by decade, starting in 1900. Join us on this fascinating stroll through American food history.

The time: 1920-1929, the Roaring 20s (a.k.a. the Jazz Age), America’s decade of riotous living. Scantily clad, cigarette-smoking “flappers” and their raccoon-coated boyfriends danced the Charleston and Black Bottom. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, returning home to ticker tape and adulation. The country was in all-out party mode.

Alcoholic beverages became illegal in 1920, but the new law simply created new business: speakeasies (illegal liquor joints) proliferated. Law-breaking became socially acceptable, by ordinary citizen and “gangster” alike: in 1927, Al Capone earned $60 million on liquor sales alone.

It seemed the fun would never stop. Until suddenly, on October 29, 1929, it did. The stock market crashed, and the party was over.

Although the 1920s wreaked havoc with California’s wine industry and liquor manufacturers, it was kind to convenience and packaged foods, which continued to grow. Wonder Bread, Girl Scout cookies, Kool-Aid, and Popsicles all made their first appearance during the decade. Jell-O, introduced in 1897, became a pantry staple, and by the 1920s was termed “America’s most favorite dessert.”

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In 1925 New York City overtook London as the world’s largest city, with 7.7 million residents. Two years later King Arthur Flour outfitted a truck with a calliope and our signature King Arthur on horseback. The truck, piping festive music, traveled the streets of New York for several years, drawing crowds wherever it went.

Most important to bakers everywhere, however, was an event that changed the course of American desserts forever.

Let’s set the stage.

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Back in 1906, James Dole had built a cannery in Honolulu, Hawaii, with newly invented machinery to peel, cut, and pack pineapples into the distinctive canned product we know today.

By 1923, Dole was the largest pineapple packer in the world.

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Meanwhile, Americans were introduced to this “exotic” fruit via cookbook and magazine ads. By the 1920s, canned pineapple was a legitimate food trend. And in 1925, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a recipe contest asking American housewives to submit their very best pineapple recipes.

The contest generated 60,000 entries. And 2,500 were for “pineapple upside-down cake.”

How was this recipe born? No one knows for sure. Skillet cakes – featuring fruit and sugar in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, topped with cake batter and cooked atop the stove – were common. So it stands to reason that pineapple would eventually make its way into a skillet cake. Which it did, probably sometime during the 1920s.

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Thankfully, the winning recipe in that contest has survived, and is still in print today. Flour, baking powder, salt, butter, eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla – so far, this is your typical cake. It’s the pineapple, as well as the maraschino cherries (also introduced during the 1920s), that make this cake special – and historic.

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I think I’ll break out my vintage eggbeater for this one – as well as one of my favorite cast iron pans. I’ve got quite a collection, many dating from the 1800s. Well-loved (and equally well-used), I find these pans, non-stick from years of seasoning, ideal for baking.

The one I’m using here is labeled 9″ – though it’s 10 1/2″ across the top, 9″ at the bottom. If you have a similar cast iron skillet, use it. If not, a 9″ square cake pan (at least 2″ deep) should work as well – though you won’t want to set it over a burner to melt the butter for the topping.

Start by preheating your oven to 350°F.

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Whisk together the following:

2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Separate two large eggs. Whisk the egg yolks to combine; set them aside. Beat the whites, separately, until light and frothy. Yes, I really did use my hand beater! But I’m switching to my KitchenAid for the rest of the batter prep.

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Beat 8 tablespoons butter until soft and smooth. Gradually beat in 1 cup granulated sugar.

Add the 2 egg yolks, beating to combine. Then add 1/2 cup milk alternately with the flour mixture.

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You’ll have a fairly stiff batter. Fold in the beaten whites, then 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Next, the topping. Which starts out on the bottom.

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Melt 2 tablespoons butter in your 9″ skillet. Spread 1 cup brown sugar evenly over the butter. Add canned pineapple rings – as many as you can fit. I used an entire can, save for 2 slices.

Spoon the batter on top.

Wait – where are the cherries? Patience…

Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

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Remove the cake from the oven. Loosen its edges.

Now comes the upside-down part –

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CAREFULLY turn the cake upside-down onto a serving plate. Make sure the plate is sturdy, and not ice-cold; a hot cast iron skillet and a cold, delicate plate is a mishap waiting to happen.

Lift the pan off the cake, scraping any pineapple or brown sugar from the pan onto the cake, if it sticks.

Ta-da!

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Ah-ha, HERE are the cherries! This original recipe adds them after the cake is baked. Place the cherries artfully atop the warm cake, pressing them in gently.

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Now you have to admit, that’s one good-looking cake, right?

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Two things I found interesting: first, the brown sugar syrup seeped down into the cake through the holes in the pineapple rings, and the space around them – space that might otherwise have been blocked by cherries, had I added them before baking as I usually do.

Second, the topping isn’t as syrupy as you’re probably used to. While it’s still partially liquid (witness the seepage), it’s also a bit crunchy around the edges; almost like streusel on a coffeecake. I find this new/original version very appealing!

Please bake, rate, and review this recipe for Original Pineapple Upside-Down Skillet Cake.

Print just the recipe.

As always, my thanks to one of the best food history resources out there, foodtimeline.org. In addition, the original pineapple upside-down cake recipe is printed on a number of Web sites, including foodreference.com.

We hope you’re enjoying our special 225th anniversary blog series, American Baking Down the Decades. Interested in more posts? See the following:
1900-1909: Birth of the Brownie
1910-1919: Packaged Cookies Catch On

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Teresa

    Reading about canned pineapple’s history got me thinking about a conversation I had with an 80-plus-year-old farmer last fall. We were at a pancake breakfast, and he asked me if I wanted to eat the pineapple on his fruit plate. He told me he can’t eat pineapple because when he was a kid growing up during WWII, one of his family members got a ration of canned pineapple. It had been so long since he and the other kids in his family had any sugar, they “stole” a coupe cans of pineapple and drank all the thick syrup in the cans. Then they got sick to their stomachs from all that syrup. So now he and his cousin can’t stand pineapple!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Teresa, what a sweet story! I love hearing from the oldest generation; their memories are often fascinating. My Dad could never stand gingersnaps, because for whatever reason they were the ONLY cookies he ever had growing up during the Depression… Thanks for sharing. PJH

  2. Kalisa

    Whoo, doggy! The cake looks great, but that cast iron pan looks amazing! Gotta love a good piece of cooking equipment that will last through a few apocalypses. I have my first cast iron frying pan and it has a lot of bacon to get through before it will be truly well-seasoned, but I am up to the challenge! 🙂

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Kalisa, stick with it – your cast iron will soon become your BFF. And the great thing is – you’ll be passing it down to future generations, because short of total mistreatment (e.g., leaving outdoors under a tree to rust into nothing), these pans last FOREVER. Witness by 1800s-vintage beauties… 🙂 PJH

  3. breadbaby

    Beautiful , love this cake, I think it is a classic because it is so simple, no bells or whistles, just the way it is suppose to be, and it is awesome,

    Reply
  4. kath65

    This story reminded me of two times in my life. Growing up in the 1950’s my mother made pineapple upside down cake with (boxed) gingerbread mix. Since then anything else tastes bland. From 1978-80 I lived on Oahu and would drive past the Dole processing plant in downtown Honolulu. The fragrance from the pineapples was intoxicating. Definitely paradise!

    Reply
    1. Nel

      Ooohh, Kath65, what a great idea! My mother was born in 1920, which I guess why (from reading the article), to her, Pineapple Upside-down cake was a ‘fancy dessert.’ I liked the topping, of course: her topping didn’t turn out syrupy; more sugary, almostly like a layer of light, fluffy, buttery brown sugar. But the cake – well, it seemed like the price you had to pay to get that yummy topping. I’m wondering if the reason the cake seemed dry and bland was because the sugar couldn’t seep into it: she put the cherries in before baking.

      But never mind all that: GINGERBREAD! What a wonderful idea! I have a recipe for a wonderful soft gingerbread cake that would probably perfectly do the trick.

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Pineapple Gingerbread Upside-down Cake–is that what we’re calling it now? Whatever you call it, it sounds yummy to me too! Barb@KAF

  5. Rosemary Hansbury

    Oh what a wonderful story! I imagine my grandmother Hansbury, a wonderful baker, in her kitchen, baking a cake like this, in her coal stove. It was always a treat to see what came from that
    oven.

    Reply
  6. Ann Murphy

    i have a 12″ cast iron pan that I would like to use to make a pineapple upside down cake. Because of the size do I have to double the cake or do 1 1/2 it?
    Thanks for your help
    Ann

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Ann, it depends – is it 12″ across the bottom, or 12″ across the top? If it’s 12″ across the top and about 10 1/4″ across the bottom, then you’d probably want to increase everything about 25%. I don’t pretend to remember a whole lot of geometry, but that’s what some quick/rough calculations yield. PJH

  7. Sally Snow

    私の住む街は朝から雪が降り、春の訪れが待ち遠しい気分の中、パイナップルケーキの写真を見て思わずコメントしてしまいました。今日の寒さを吹き飛ばすほどのあたたかさと、愛らしさと、ユーモアが伝わってきました。これからもいろんなレシピ楽しみにしています。

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      冬は、あまりにも、ここでサリーをオン長引くている。パイナップルケーキは間違いなく春の息吹です!私たちはあなたのコレクションに別のレシピを追加させていただきます。 PJH

  8. Morag

    Many happy memories here. But have noticed that contemporary bakers don’t seem to brown the bottoms of these cakes the way our mothers did. The entire surface of the pineapples or other fruits used to be caramelized and a bit crispy, not just the edges as in the picture here. Going by the memory of my friends’ mothers’ upside-down cakes, not just my own mom’s. Remember because it was the best part!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I bet the caramelized fruit added a lovely touch to the cake, I can see why you liked it the best. Jon@KAF

    2. Denny Bell

      That’s the way my Mom made it. The hard chunks of brown sugar were like having candy with your cake!

  9. Sallie

    Many Thanks this is my husbands favorite cake. His Mother used to bake this for him on his birthday! Since she has passed 18 yrs ago. Im baking this cake for him now…I never thought of using our cast iron skillet…I will do this next bday!

    Thank you again for sharing this recipe 🙂

    its the same .

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Sallie, good luck with the skillet – I think you’ll enjoy using it for this cake. And I’m SURE your husband will appreciate the result. 🙂 PJH

  10. Allie

    love making my pineapple upside down cake in my cast iron skillet also. I also make a version that is low in sugar for my diabetic son! Boy, he doesn’t want to share

    Reply
  11. patty posteraro

    This was my Dad’s very favorite cake! One he requested every birthday, and a few times in between. He passed away 14 years ago at the age of 91… I can still see the big smile on his face whenever he saw that cake, and he would say “ah, my favorite”! We still celebrate his birthday every year with a pineapple upside down cake, in his memory! Thank you for the history lesson! Now, I need to bake a cake!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Yes, Patty, you do need to bake this cake, for sure. I’ve made pineapple upside down cake at least 39 times – and I know that exact count because it’s my husband’s ONLY birthday cake (just like your dad), and we’ve been married 39 years! Cheers – PJH

  12. Bibi Powell

    Thanks for the idea of adding the cherries later! I prefer pie cherries (kept in the freezer) to canned. Will have to try it! Two comments however: my sister in law (who can break the unbreakable) has broken a number of antique cast iron skillets. She says they get brittle. Another, lest we forget: the roaring twenties were roaring for only a few percent of the population; everybody else was having a hard time. Income inequality was a serious reality, and the Great Depression made everything that much worse.

    Reply
  13. Sherrypuddin

    Enjoyed so much! I’m 74 now and still remember going to my grandmothers house for Sunday dinner. After the wonderful meal of fried chicken ( from her own coop) and all the other delicious dishes, ( from her own garden), out came the fabulous Pineapple Upside Down Cake! I have her iron skillet that she used and have kept it busy down thru the years. Your recipe is a little different than mine but I’m going to give it a try. Loved the memory,

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      So glad to hear we could help you relive (and re-love) old memories, Sherry. Enjoy this new version of your grandmother’s classic – PJH

  14. Cari

    Thanks for doing these! I’m really enjoying the series, and I get really excited when the new one posts. It would be neat to go further back, too, maybe starting from the beginning of the company.

    Sadly, my skillets wouldn’t manage this well. I need to go hit some good Midwestern garage sales; out here on the left coast such things never turn up, and maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but the new ones just aren’t the same caliber.

    A favor: PJ, could you post your sources/citations for these, maybe at the end of the article? For example, I’d love to go look at the source for the recipe competition statistics. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to follow such threads!

    Reply
  15. Cari

    Oops, I think my comment got eaten. The short form:
    Thanks so much for this series!
    Modern cast iron just isn’t the same.
    And, PJ, could you post your sources at the end of the article? I’d love to read more.

    Reply
  16. Gail

    I notice that the interior of the skillet is smooth, like my mother’s old cast iron. Now the insides are bumpy. Is there a way to get the interiors of the cast iron machined for a smooth surface? The texture on new cast iron makes everything stick!

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      I haven’t heard of something like that Gail, machining the pans. I would say you could check the yellow pages for a smith, or an iron worker? Also, scour the classified ads and Craigslist for used cast iron. Viva la vintage! ~ MJ

    2. Lyna

      My husband did that for me, smoothing a new cast iron pan. He says to use 60 grit paper on a vibratory sander. If you want to hire someone, look for a machine shop and describe what you want. If your new pan came ‘preseasoned’ you will have to season it from scratch.
      I have 3 old pans in 3 sizes that were my mother’s and may have been grandmother’s, If we had to evacuate quickly the middle one, 8″ diameter, would go with me for sure.

  17. andrea

    Loved the article. Can’t wait to try this vintage recipe. Thank you for the history lesson. I enjoy learning new things and the memories it brings back are priceless.

    Reply
  18. Gwen

    i wonder if the dole booklet is the source of a dessert my grandmother made.
    she sliced an old-fashioned doughnut (they were craggy & came 6 to a box) horizontally,
    put one slice of pineapple on the bottom piece, slapped on the top piece & topped it with
    whipped cream.
    we all loved it—can’t find old-fashioned doughnuts anymore—–i think the KAF baked might do.

    Reply
  19. Wen

    Fabulous article and recipe! Items like this really set King Arthur apart from other sites!
    Thank you so much!

    Reply
  20. SherriD

    I use the pineapple juice in place of some/all of the milk- a little extra butter in the pan encourages that caramel/crunchy thing that is sooooo good.

    Reply
  21. member-juliaduchinsky

    Wonderful article! Thank you so much for rekindling some memories. My grandmother made this cake for my father’s birthday when he was a child, and I continue the tradition using her original cast iron skillet. My father celebrated his 81st this past February. After reading your article, I was surprised that the base was a yellow cake. Grandma always made it as a dark chocolate cake. I’ll have to try it your way!

    Reply
  22. Susan Kline

    Just saw this for the first time and I’m sure I will enjoy following your resurrections of the old recipes! Can’t wait to try this because I am not happy with the cake recipe I currently use for pineallple upside down cake. My grandmother either baked without recipes or hers are all gone. She baked the most delicious cakes, including poneapple upside down cake. Will you be giving us old fashioned cinnamon buns with the lovely gooey top?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Who knows what PJ will dream up next- it’s always a great surprise! Happy reading! Laurie@KAF

  23. Mary Bellebuono

    Oh how i love a good homemade Pineapple Upside down cake, this is what my mother would bake for me for my birthday but she also would add pecans, oh how yummy..She is no longer with us and it has been a long time since i have had this cake, my birthday is this Fri. the 20th guess i will just have to make my own. Never see this cake at the grocery store in their bake shop, wonder why ?
    Thank you for sharing this great recipe.

    Reply
  24. Anita Strickhausen

    Enjoying so much your food history & recipes. LOVED the picture of your GREEN handled beater as I’m a collector of green handled kitchen tools. I have well over 100 & no duplicates of brands. And like you, I use them from time to time. Also, my Mama gave me a set of 3 cast iron skillets for a wedding shower 58 yrs ago. Still using them & they’re better than ever. Plan to make this Pineapple Upside Down cake in the large one.

    Reply
  25. member-beverlywilson1974

    Such great memories! My grandmother also made this cake in a frying pan, but she used an aluminum one. She only used that frying pan for pinapple upside down cake and tomato pudding (aka stewed tomatoes). I have no clue why those two dishes in that pan other than it was larger than her cast iron pans.
    Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  26. TheWildOlive

    As a collector of vintage cookbooks and a lover of old school food, I am very much enjoying this series. thanks for creating it! And what a great idea – cherries on at the end! It looks 10x better! Wonder why people pretty much universally switched to putting them in before baking?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      The urge to be done? Afraid they’d forget at the end? It’s interesting to speculate why recipes change, isn’t it? 🙂 PJH

  27. Reg

    My parents were married in 1940. My mother was a good cook, but at that point she was inexperienced. Apparently one of the few desserts she was confident in making was pineapple upside down cake. My father was appreciative, and he liked the cake. However, the story goes, after a steady repetition of pineapple upside down cake he finally asked if she would expand her dessert repertoire.
    I have a question. Can you use fresh pineapple in place of the canned pineapple and get satisfactory results?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Too much of a good thing, eh, Reg? I’m sure you can use fresh pineapple; you won’t have those cute rings, but the first versions of the cake called for crushed pineapple or rings, so that’s always an option, too. Enjoy – PJH

  28. Reg

    Yes I can get the rings since I have a pineapple slicer (available for under ten dollars at several locations) which peels, cores, and slices a pineapple in one very simple process. You simply cut the top and bottom off the pineapple then twist the handle as this device cuts a spiral down through the fruit. It is similar to the idea of a spiral sliced ham. You just run a knife down the side of the fruit and you have a nice neat stack of pineapple rings.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Ah yes, I think I’ve seen that device. Well, good – enjoy your FRESH pineapple upside down cake, Reg! PJH

  29. Cathy

    What wonderful history and memories!
    I remember making this as a new bride in 1971 and feeling very good about my new culinary skills!
    Recently I have made it gluten free for a friend and it turns out great.

    Reply
  30. Denny Bell

    Why is this referred to as a stove top cake when it’s done in the oven? Can it also be done over a burner?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I found quite a few cake recipes that can be made on the stovetop! It’s a good option for boat dwellers, hot days, or tiny ovens. We haven’t experimented with a total no-oven bake, but you can bet it’s making my list in the future. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I still find pineapples exotic, Tammi! I guess that makes me old. 🙂 Barb@KAF

  31. Jenn

    My mom (and I presume her mother before her) made this cake a little differently: melt one stick of butter in your cast iron skillet, add a pound of brown sugar, and cook it over a high-ish heat until the sugar is melted and bubbly, stirring occasionally. Then add the pineapple (my mom sometimes made it with crushed, but I do not like it that way), pour over it the yellow cake recipe of your choice, and put it into the oven.

    Unfortunately, I am the only one in my family who likes pineapple upside down cake, so I seldom make it. Alas!

    Reply
  32. Mary Hoke

    HELLO!! COULD YOU TELL ME WHAT KIND OF CAKES ETC I CAN USE MY KAF CAKE FLOUR FOR. I HAVE SEEN SEVERAL OF THE RECIPES ON THIS WEBSITE BUT I HAVE MANY RECIPES THAT WERE HANDED DOWN FROM MY GRANDMOTHER AND MY MOTHER,SOME ARE AT LEAST 75 YEARS OLD. ANY HELP WOULD BE APPRECIATED. MANY THANKS. SINCERELY THE CAKE LADY

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello, The Cake Lady – Your best bet is to just plow through the recipes one by one and see how they come out. Cake flour is at its best when used in a high ratio cake recipe to produce a tender fine grained crumb. Susan did a great blog called The A B C’s of Cake Flour. It is a must read for you! Enjoy and happy baking! Elisabeth@KAF

  33. Candy F.

    As a child, each of us kids got to choose our birthday cake. My Daddy was a wonderful cook and baker. This was always my choice. To this day it is, hands down, my favorite cake. I use the cast iron skillet that was passed down to me and cherish both the memories it holds and the food it gives. Thank you for this recipe. I’ll be baking it soon. (Although I admit to being wary of placing the cherries after the fact. We’ll see… LOL!

    Reply
  34. Richard Gilmore

    My grandmother taught me to bake a pineapple upside down cake 71 years ago ( saying every man should know how to bake and cook). I still make this cake and I cut extra pineapple slices in half and line the sides of the skillet with them, turning so the rounded side will be pointed toward the top of the cake. She gave a copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook when I got married and I use the recipe in it. Will try your recipe but my memory says if appears to be very similar to the one I made for years.

    I enjoy cooking outdoors and bake most of my bread on either a Big Green Egg or a Weber Gas Grill.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi there,
      Pecans are a great option instead of the cherries, or use fresh cherries if you can have those. ~ MJ

  35. Doona

    Loved this story. Back in the early 70’s in “home ec” our teacher taught us how to bake a pineapple upside down cake in an electric skillet. Of course we all went straight home to show our families lol.

    Reply
  36. Jane Pigott

    Plan to make pineapple upside down cake for thanksgiving
    Would like to have print copy to work with
    Looks great. My mother used to make it

    Reply

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