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May 17, 2007

Tried-and-True



Back when I worked at Reuters, I had an odd schedule that often had me working the late shift on New Year's Eve. This meant that if I was lucky, I could get out of there just in time to make it home by the all important midnight turn into the next year, but it didn't leave much time for me to enjoy the evening in the best new year's fashion -- i.e., hosting a dinner party. Because every holiday must apparently be celebrated with some sort of food festivity.

So because I'd worked late the night before, I would have the next day off, and for a few years I continued a little 'tradition' of making a New Year's Day meal. I invited all and sundry, and we nursed our hangovers -- or started in on new ones -- while indulging in an elaborate spread. One year I made a quiche accompanied by black eyed peas; this is from my oft-neglected food journal:

dinner: champagne and olives and brie and hummus. broccoli quiche, spinach and leek quiche, mashed sweet potatoes, salad, apple sauce, some black eyed peas, for luck. lovely little cranberry upside down cakes that are delicious.

Every year, no matter if I made a Greek-inspired feast with my brother (and drank too much delicious red wine from an old friend) in California, or poached salmon and threw together a baby spinach salad with out-of-season strawberries, I always finished off the meal with a cranberry upside-down cake from Williams-Sonoma. I've used the cake recipe with various other fruits as well; in summer, I love a combination of plums and nectarines, or cherries or peaches.

I bring this up now, in May, because last week I had a fresh pineapple that needed using, and I decided to make a pineapple upside-down cake. Very unlike those I remember from childhood, using fresh pineapple eliminates the cloying, sickly-sweetness that comes from using canned fruit in upside-down cakes (not to mention forgoing the unearthly red cherries is a small revelation), and I was eager to try it. For some reason (why??), I went with a different recipe from Gourmet rather than my usual. I suppose I wanted a change of pace.

And it was OK. Not bad, really, just ... not as good as my old reliable. The cake wasn't quite as light, the crumb not as tender. I should have known better. As I am a simple girl, I also like to go with what I know. This is not to say I won't try new things -- because I will, especially in cooking -- but I do think that when you land on a good thing, it's a smart idea to keep it around.

Still, the cake looked pretty enough, and it was a good experiment in using fresh pineapple. But next time, I'll stick with my old pal.



[Pineapple upside-down cake, May 2007]

Tried-and-true Upside-Down Cake, adapted from from williams-sonoma.com

For the topping:
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 lb. cranberries, or 1/2 pineapple cut into one-inch wedges

For the cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar

To make the topping, butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Put the butter and brown sugar in the prepared pan and place the pan over medium heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the sugar has dissolved. Scatter the cranberries, or arrange the pineapple, over the butter-sugar mixture. Set aside.

Preheat an oven to 350°F.

To make the cake, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix well. Using a silicone or rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites in another bowl until soft peaks form. Add the cream of tartar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Using the spatula, fold the whites into the batter.

Spoon the batter over the fruit in the cake pan, spreading it evenly. Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake. Invert onto a serving plate, let stand for 5 minutes, then lift off the pan.

Serve with whipped cream, of course.

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