Upside Down Cake Sampler–1930s

After baking the Upside Down Cake recipe featured in the October 1926 issue of The Farmer’s Wife (HERE), I became curious about the history of this type of cake.

In the mid-1920s, The Hawaiian Pineapple Company owned by James Dole held a recipe contest featuring pineapple. Information about the contest was publicized in popular women’s magazines and the response was almost overwhelming! Many of the submissions combined the newly available pineapple with a cake recipe to create a Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Interestingly Upside Down Cakes were not new. They had been baked for hundreds of years using seasonal or dried fruits and nuts. The combination of cake and canned pineapple was a match made in culinary heaven and is still popular today.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake–1926

I followed the recipe from The Farmer’s Wife magazine (below) as written except for replacing the lemon extract with vanilla and adding maraschino cherries inside the pineapple rings. It was delicious! The cake however was a sponge leavened with stiffly beaten egg whites. Once baked and turned out of the pan the weight of the fruit and caramel topping began at once to compress the cake. Fortunately, it didn’t completely collapse and we were able to enjoy every last crumb.

Upside Down Cake

  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 3 eggs (beaten separately)
  • ½ tsp lemon extract
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 4 Tbsp cold water

Beat yolks with sugar, add water and flavoring. Sift dry ingredients and add to mixture. Beat well 5 minutes. Fold in well-beaten whites of eggs.

In an iron skillet melt four tablespoonsful butter and one cupful brown sugar. Cover bottom of skillet with slices of pineapple then pour the cake mixture over this and bake in a moderate oven for at least forty minutes. Start at 260 degrees let rise to 300 degrees.

*Other fruit can be used instead of pineapple.

So my question at this point was whether all Upside Down Cakes were sponge cakes, and I quickly found that they were not. Many were sturdier butter cakes. Below is a sampler of Upside Down Cakes from the 1930s:

The recipe for Pineapple Skillet Sponge (below) comes from the My Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book from 1930. It obviously is a sponge leavened with stiffly beaten egg whites and baking powder:

Pineapple Skillet Sponge, My Better Homes, and Gardens Cook Book 1930

The following recipe comes from a Crescent advertising booklet who were the makers of baking powder and the Mapleine flavoring called for in the recipe.

The All About Home Baking cookbook 1935 (below) demonstrates how other fruits such as prunes and apricots can be used in Upside Down Cakes:

Using the Miracle Cake recipe, a home baker could make three different cakes with the amount of batter that it makes!

Modern Meal Maker 1939 contains recipes for eight different kinds of Upside Down Cakes

A cookbook titled Modern Meal Maker from 1939 boasts menus including desserts for every day of the year. A list of the Upside Down Cake recipes it contains gives us a glimpse of just how versatile skillet cakes could be and how popular they were. Most of the combinations sound really good except for the one calling for fresh or canned grapes!

  • Ginger Apple Surprise—a seven-inch cake made with molasses, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves “topped” with apple slices and caramel
  • Pineapple Upside Down Gingerbread—baked in an eight-inch square pan, the gingerbread has molasses, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg with caramel and crushed pineapple
  • Grape Upside Down Ginger Cake—a butter cake with buttermilk, ginger, cinnamon and cloves with fresh or canned grapes and caramel for the “topping” to be garnished with fresh grapes and whipped cream
  • Orange Pineapple Upside Down Cake—a caramel made with brown sugar and orange juice with sliced pineapple, walnuts and stuffed dates covered over with a spice cake batter with cinnamon, cloves and buttermilk
  • Peach Butterscotch Upside Down Cake—a butterscotch sauce flavored with mace is poured over peach halves and raisins arranged in the shape of a flower in the bottom of a nine-inch pan with a sponge batter poured over
  • Pineapple Walnut Upside Down Cake—sliced pineapple, walnuts and maraschino cherry are covered with a caramel glaze and baked with a sponge cake
  • Rhubarb Upside Down Cakes—a thick rhubarb compote is spooned into the bottom of six large muffin tins then baked with a hot milk sponge cake
  • Spanish Upside Down Cakes—vanilla butter cake batter covers caramel and apricot filled muffin cups to make twelve individual Upside Down Cakes  

Upside down cakes enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the mid-twentieth century and are now, a hundred years later, all over the internet often baked in a bundt pan for a striking presentation. Some “recipes” simply call for a prepared yellow cake mix to be baked over the fruit and caramel. I think skillet cakes will live forever.

Elaine