Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Old School Style

In my family, we have a tradition on my birthday: pineapple upside-down cake. In a time of $3.00 cupcakes and exotic fondant-smothered cakes made to look like anything but cakes, pineapple upside-down can truly be considered retro.

Well, I suppose it's appropriate. For, after the great many birthdays I have enjoyed, I could be considered retro, too.

I can't remember when I experienced my first pineapple upside-down, but it was very early in my childhood when we were still clobbering dinosaurs with clubs and Mom had to bake it in a mud oven outdoors. Suffice to say, when I was about four or five.

I'm kidding about the mud oven. She did bake it indoors in a gas oven she lit with a match, so we really did have great technology. It was part of the mysterious ritual of creating the legendary pineapple upside-down cake.

First there was the prep work. Mom didn't have fancy cake pans or Bundt rings, but she did have a great big pink earthenware bowl with a white rim that she could put in the oven, so she would get that out and inspect it for cracks.

She would take oleo (we never had butter back then) out of the 'fridge to soften. Sometimes she planned ahead and left a cube of it out on the counter the night before.

She lined up the cake mix, melted a little Crisco, and opened the can of pineapple rings and strained to open up the bottle of maraschino cherries. Double-checked the brown sugar supply and stirred it up if it had gotten hard. Set out a couple of eggs to come up to room temperature. Put the beaters in the tiny electric hand-mixer.

I got to stand on a kitchen chair and watch as she carefully laid out the canned pineapple slices and maraschino cherries on a clean dishtowel on the kitchen sink. While they drained, I sometimes got to eat a cherry from the jar.

Usually when you make a cake, the frosting and presentation are the final steps in the process, but with an upside-down cake it's sort of like Christianity in theory-the last shall be first. So the first step in the process of building the cake was to coat the bowl with the room-temp, soft margarine. If we were in the money at the time, Mom would use the whole stick of oleo.

Next, she lined the bowl with as much brown sugar as would stick to the margarine. It doesn't work well if the sugar is stale and full of lumps, and Mom used to guard her brown sugar supply carefully. Then came the decorating part-the drained pineapple rings laid out in a careful, symmetrical pattern in the bowl. Usually she managed to get all the rings from the can around the bowl and one in the center. A maraschino cherry (sometimes only a half of a cherry if we weren't in the money that month)was placed in the center of each ring, then the batter carefully spooned in.

An hour or what seemed like five hours of baking time ensued, during which time the house filled with aroma and neighbor kids would start asking if they could eat over. One sniff and you'd know how heaven smells.

Many times in my life as a single parent, I have baked this cake for my own birthday or for special occasions, and with the popularity of cupcakes I have even adapted it to pineapple upside down cupcakes, which are great fun but lack the magnificence of a full-size cake on a vintage glass cake stand.

Now it has become my son Sean's specialty to do a Bundt version for my birthday, and this year's effort was truly magnificent. Very fussy and particular in the kitchen, he also has an appreciation for the beauty of old school style.

We may no longer light the oven with a match, but there are just those wonderful retro things we ought to treasure and keep in our lives. I know that I will be able to recognize heaven when I smell it.

Here's how to do it old-school:

1 can pineapple rings, drained dry, juice reserved.
1 small bottle maraschino cherries, drained
1/2 - 1 stick margarine or butter
3/4 -1 C. brown sugar
3 eggs
1 pkg. yellow cake mix

Pre-heat oven to 350. Coat bottom and sides of a Dutch oven or Bundt ring up to within 1" of top with the butter or margarine. Add the brown sugar and coat the bottom and sides as far up as it will go, patting onto the sides of the pan if needed.

Line pan with the fruit rings, creating a symmetrical design. (If I have the space, I use all the pineapple rings and tuck extra cherries in empty-looking spots.)

Mix up the cake batter using the cake mix, eggs, and reserved juice with water added if necessary to provide the amount of liquid called for in the package directions. Carefully pour or ladle the batter into the pan.

Bake for about 30 mins. and begin checking with a toothpick inserted into the center for doneness. Depending on the pan used, can take as long as 45 mins. to 1 hour.

When done, remove from oven and immediately turn out onto a plate. Voila-old school!

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