My Family Recipe

How I Lost My Mother’s Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Then Found It (& Her) Again

Sifting through the past for an old family recipe.

March 12, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Close your eyes and imagine a pineapple. Is it a personal-sized Maui Gold, spilling its sweet juices down your face and into the warm, white sands of a faraway beach?

I’ll admit that this iconic image of the tropical treat is very enticing. But it’s canned pineapple rings that haunt my fruit fantasies. They tell the story of my childhood happiness, fished out of their blue Dole can and set gently into a caramelized first-bottom-then-top bath of nostalgia, the canned juice brightening my mother’s pineapple upside-down cake.

This cake accompanied every family celebration. It was also eaten in sorrowful times, for consolation, a reminder that life, for all its jagged edges, could still be delicious. First my mom made it for me, and then, when I was in middle school and she began to descend into an illness she'd never come back from, I became the family baker. Pineapple upside-down cake was one of my first solo baking projects during those dark days.

I have to confess that there was a period back then when I divided my affections between this cake and that strawberry Jell-O cake that was so ubiquitous in the 1960s. But after a couple of years of succumbing to the seductions of tangy neon-pink cake, so moist with vegetable oil that it had practically no crumb, my senses got the better of me. The pink seemed too vivid, the powdered strawberry flavor too intense, while the natural golds and browns of the pineapple cake began to speak to me of their just-rightness.

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“Dang, this article left tears in my eyes. Such a poignant piece on the connection of food, memory and love. ”
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Alas, there were many years when I wasn’t able to make this cake. Unthinkably, Mom’s little handwritten recipe note card disappeared with the detritus of a relationship gone wrong, after a hasty packing and moving-out day that left my entire adulthood thereafter cake-poor. I knew no one else who had the recipe, and Google wasn’t around yet. This cake, the only cake I couldn’t reproduce, became my forbidden fruit. I longed for it, daydreamed about it, and never came to terms with its loss.

Some might say that longing for the lost cake was a substitute for longing for my lost mother. 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. She gave me my sense of fearlessness and adventure in the kitchen, for which I am profoundly thankful. But her most tangible legacy was that recipe card, and I had let it vanish.

Some years later, the internet was born. I Googled madly, trying to find the recipe, but to no avail. Then, one day, I mentioned the cake in a Facebook group for personal chefs. I said that the defining features of the cake were the addition of pineapple juice to the batter, the lightness of the beaten egg whites, and the fact that it was baked in a cast-iron skillet.

I went on to lament the fact that I still had my mother’s skillet, but not the recipe. And then came the moment, so shocking and so sweet, when a group member in New Hampshire posted the One True Recipe, asking innocently, “Could this be the one?”

This cake, the only cake I couldn’t reproduce, became my forbidden fruit. I longed for it, daydreamed about it, and never came to terms with its loss.

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 home 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’m diabetic now and no longer eat sweets. Nonetheless, because 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 Mom'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 have my house filled with its fragrance and resist putting it rapturously into my mouth.

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 of 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 mother.

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6 Comments

anne March 17, 2019
Why would anyone need a recipe for pineapple upside down cake. It is ubiquitous. Ridiculous article.
 
Jennifer W. March 15, 2019
I lost my Mom less than a year ago. Your sharing this intimate recipe means so much. Moms hand written recipes are now my treasures, and I feel the same way about reproducing them... Her pineapple upside down cake is one that she just threw together recklessly (her baking style) so her written recipe was never exactly right! I long to relive that memory too. Thank you. I will be making this in memory of your dear Mom, for you.
 
Judy S. March 12, 2019
Beautifully written - summoned similar memories. My mother's recipe card for applesauce cake evokes more understanding as the years pass. Thank you.
 
Marlys S. March 12, 2019
I wrote about lining the skillet or pan with parchment paper when making a Pineapple Upside Down Cake. I should have added to line it with Parchment paper that hangs over 2 inches on each side. Sorry!
 
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Abra B. March 12, 2019
No need to do that with this recipe. It will slide right out of the pan.
 
lara H. March 12, 2019
Dang, this article left tears in my eyes. Such a poignant piece on the connection of food, memory and love.