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  • Writer's picturedeborahreinhardt

Rhubarb and Pineapple Upside-down Cake

Tart rhubarb gives a different twist to this classic dessert.

pineapple and rhubarb upside-down cake
Our rhubarb-pineapple upside-down cake is super moist. All that's missing is a cup of coffee.

I could never do a head stand as a kid in gym class or as an adult in yoga. Roller coasters are not for me, and I get queasy just looking at folks hanging by their heels in that contraption that’s supposed to stretch their spines.

But I can get behind an upside-down cake, that classic dessert that usually features pineapple rings with cherries in the middle. Most of us grew up with this cake because it’s been popular since the late 1920s.

However, inverted cakes date to the 1800s, according to the website What’s Cooking America. What’s more, they were known as “skillet cakes” and were cooked on top of the stove in trusty cast-iron using seasonal fruits like apples or cherries because canned pineapple wasn’t invented until 1901 (we have Jim Dole of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company—now Dole Company—to thank for that).

In fact, it was Dole’s company that sponsored a pineapple recipe contest in 1925 and thousands of pineapple upside-down cakes were entered. That’s flippin’ crazy!

Mom and Bubba (my grandma) baked their share of pineapple upside-downs for the family (this was the only time I’d eat a maraschino cherry), so this has been a favorite cake of mine for many years. The moist vanilla cake and sweet pineapple bathed in butter and brown sugar (your mouth is watering right now, isn’t it?) sometimes was topped with vanilla ice cream when we felt extra indulgent.

There also are strong memories from potluck and fish fry dinners hosted by the church we attended because we’d always find plenty of pineapple upside-down cake slices on little white paper plates that ran the length of folding tables.

I’ll bet you have your own recipe for pineapple upside-down cake, but I wonder if you’ve tried pineapple with rhubarb? I mean, 19th-century cooks used a variety of fruits for skillet cakes, so let’s have a little fun.

Actually, I was going to do strawberry-rhubarb in homage to Bubba’s wonderful pie of the same name, but I didn’t get a chance to pick strawberries last month, and those in the store have been so expensive. I took a gamble that tart rhubarb would pair with sweet pineapple, and that chance paid off.

The best rhubarb is found in the spring, so as I write this, we’re at the end of its season. In fact, I had to drive to two markets to find it. But what a way to say bon voyage to this vegetable that’s so pretty in pink. (Although U.S. Customs in New York legally classified rhubarb as a fruit in 1947.)

Rhubarb became popular after World War II when sugar became affordable; it’s nearly inedible in my opinion without it. Although as early as 2700 B.C., Chinese medical experts used the roots of rhubarb to treat a variety of ailments.

For this recipe, you’ll need:

  • 2 cups fresh rhubarb (about 1 large stalk or two smaller stalks)

  • 1 can crushed pineapple

  • Butter

  • Brown sugar

  • Box of yellow cake mix

  • Eggs

  • Vegetable oil

One of the selling points to traditional pineapple upside-down cake is the beautiful bottom of golden pineapple rings with cheerful red cherries peeking through the holes. However, rhubarb loses its pink color when cooked, so when I flipped over the finished cake, a tan mixture of rhubarb and pineapple was revealed, which completely turned off my daughter. However, I prettied up the cake with a light dusting of powdered sugar, so what it might lack in appearance, it makes up in flavor.

I baked the cake in a cast-iron skillet, but I’m guessing any non-stick and oven-safe pan would work in this application. The key is to let the cake cook for about 10 minutes and running a knife around the outside to help loosen the skillet’s hold. But after this, the cake flipped and turned out with no problem.

The super moist vanilla cake marries with the fruit that, thanks to rhubarb, does not overpower in the sweetness department. It will make a wonderful dessert to take on a picnic or pool party this summer.

Let me know if you try this twist on a classic and what you think. I guess there’s something to that cliche—everything old is new again!


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