Cooking with Kay: The quintessential autumn comfort food

By Kay Harrod Published:

Are you counting the days until the first day of autumn? It’s Saturday you know and will give you an excuse to make pots of chili and soup. Of course with it comes the time to be raking leaves – that dreaded chore for me.

I walk my neighborhood watching the leaves turn and the acorns fall, just as in the spring I look for those beautiful trees to open their gorgeous blossoms. I find beauty in both. But as darkness comes earlier and the night time temps begin to cool the earth, my thoughts turn to desserts that I consider fall specific.

Years ago Cathy and Phillip Kring and I were in Lexington on a rainy fall night. We were in Chevy Chase and opted for the homemade Italian dishes served at Saratoga.

After stuffing ourselves on pasta, the owner told us, “Mama has just taken a Pineapple Upside Down Cake out of the oven.” Then he sealed the deal and made our decision for us when he said it was her own recipe that she made in a huge iron skillet.

We immediately ordered three pieces. Unfortunately the more calorie conscious choice for us today would be one piece and three forks.

Never and I mean never have I ever tasted a more delicious Pineapple Upside Down Cake. On the brisk, wet night that warm dessert and a hot cup of coffee became my quintessential fall comfort food.

The dense, yellowish cake with its warm, brown sugar syrup influenced by the pineapple – yes, there was also the maraschino cherry – was scrumptious. While there was a dollop of freshly whipped cream, that addition was not needed with this tasty dessert.

While over the years I have eaten Pineapple Upside Down Cake, I consider our culinary adventure a chance encounter with a one-time only delectable dessert.


The term “upside down cake” first began appearing in the late 1800s. Up until then, this type of cake was referred to as skillet cakes. And the term came because ovens weren’t always common or reliable; thus as was the case of so many things, skillet cakes were born of practicality.

Cakes were made in the popular cast-iron skillets on top of the stove. According to historians, inverting a cake to reveal a topping was popular as far back as the Middle Ages.

I love this next fact.

The first upside down cakes were made with seasonal fresh fruits such as apples and cherries – not canned pineapple - it hadn’t been invented yet. Canned pineapple manufacturing didn’t begin until 1901 when Jim Dole established the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Company) and began producing and marketing mass quantities of the canned fruit.

In 1925, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a contest calling for pineapple recipes. Judges from the Fannie Farmer School, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s Magazine were on the panel.

Records show that 2,500 of the 60,000 submissions were recipes for Pineapple Upside Down Cake. The company decided to run an ad about the flood of Pineapple Upside Down cake recipes it had received. The cake’s popularity increased and the rest, as is said, is history.


Over the years, I have tried to re-create the Saratoga recipe. Although I never asked for the recipe from Mama, I paid attention to some of the nuances that I could see and taste.

In my search many recipes I found called for a yellow cake mix. While you can certainly do this, I think it has an artificial taste. Besides whipping up this batter is so easy and most of what it requires is probably already in your kitchen.

Another thing I like is the sauce this recipe produces. I don’t like dry Pineapple Upside Down Cake. But there are those who would argue they prefer more of a crispy edge on their cake – which definitely means omit the crushed pineapple.

The only other thing I do like for this recipe or any yellow cake recipe is using fresh farm eggs. The rich yolk gives the batter its yellowish color. If the eggs are small, in any case, use two.


1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 or two eggs, room temperature

½ cup milk – at least 2 percent

¼ cup vegetable shortening

2 tablespoons pineapple juice

¼ teaspoon grated lemon zest (can omit)

1 teaspoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preparation: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare pineapple topping first.

1 stick butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 can 8-oz. crushed pineapple, drained, reserve 2 tablespoons syrup

1 can 20 ounce pineapple slices, drained

Maraschino cherries

In a 10-inch iron skillet or 9x12 baking pan, melt butter and add brown sugar. Stir in brown sugar until blended; remove skillet from heat.

Arrange pineapple slices in skillet on top of syrup.

Place a maraschino cherry in center of each pineapple.

With hands or spoon, place drained crushed pineapple over all.

Preparing cake: Using a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add egg, milk, and vegetable shortening; beat two minutes. Add reserved two tablespoons pineapple syrup, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla extract; beat additional 2 minutes.

Pour cake batter over prepared pineapple slices in the frying pan, spreading evenly.

Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes on a wire rack.

Now for the trick. I recommend a plate with a rim that is larger than your skillet. If you don’t have one, think about using a pizza pan. Normally any large plate would do, but this recipe produces a sauce that will run down the cake and possibly off a flat plate.


Since we’re talking about autumn foods, get your recipes ready for Wilson Nursery’s Autumn Bounty Fest, Saturday, Oct. 13.

In years past it has strictly been a pumpkin cook-off, but this year apples are also on the menu.

The dishes for the Pumpkin/Apple Cook Off can be savory or sweet. Apple dishes and pumpkin dishes will be judged separately.

According to Kelly Morgan, marketing coordinator at Wilson’s, entries must be delivered by noon on Saturday, Oct. 13 and judging will begin at 12:30.

Prizes will be awarded for first, second and third and gifts will be given to all who enter.

I entered Wilson’s Christmas cookie contest a couple of years ago and it was so much fun for me. Plus many of the staff members prepare dishes for people to taste; I really liked that.

This would be a great opportunity for consumer science or culinary students to cook for a contest or for those of you with children who like to cook to let them prepare a favorite apple or pumpkin recipe.

After all, it’s fall and nothing warms the house like fragrant spices from the kitchen.

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  • Never had the pineapple upside down cake at the Saratoga, but everything else I had was great - I was sorry to see it go.

  • love the cake recipe! Can't wait to try it.

  • love the cake recipe! Can't wait to try it.

  • love the cake recipe! Can't wait to try it.