As I sat at the counter of the Pine Apple Grocery in Pine Apple, Alabama, James Huggins explained the origin of the town’s name. “Back in earlier days, there was a stage coach route through the area, and a stopping place here – a watering hole for the horses with a pine tree and an apple tree, so they called it Pine Apple.” Although the 2000 census listed Pine Apple as having 148 residents, a patron at the grocery (who was also a member of the City Council) guessed that the population had dwindled to about 70. Downtown Pine Apple, located at the corner of Pineapple Highway and Banana Street, has a post office, a town hall, a library, some empty storefronts, and the Pine Apple Grocery, host of the annual Pine Apple Hunter Appreciation Day. It was through James at the grocery that I met the cake lady Lois Mims, who lives just down the street. Lois makes cakes for her friends and family, and, like many cake ladies, is often commissioned to bake cakes for sale. Lois has a reputation as a cook in her community. “They all call me Big Mama,” she says. “Grown folk call me Big Mama. That’s because I used to do a lot of cooking and feed a lot of people, and I didn’t mind doing it. I enjoy feeding people. It makes me feel good.”
Like many other cake ladies, Lois doesn’t use written recipes; instead she relies on her memory, her intuition, and her experience to craft the perfect cake. “You talking about a recipe? I ain’t got a recipe. I just put my stuff in there, take my head, and use it.” Within minutes of meeting her, Lois proceeded to tell me how she makes several of her cakes, listing from memory the ingredients and methods for egg pie, cooked caramel icing, applesauce spice cake, yellow cake, lemon pie, coconut pie, and pineapple upside-down cake.
She recounted a baking story where she had to rely on intuition (and prayer) to get the right results: “One time I was making pies for some people, but I don’t have money to buy pie crust, and I can’t make them like my mama, so I said, ‘Lord, help me to make these pie crusts for these people because I don’t have no money.’ So I got up and I rolled them pie crusts, and they came out right. They say the pies were nice, they were good.”
Like many bakers, Lois credits her mother with teaching her to bake by feel rather than from recipes. She says, “There was a friend my mother used to cook for. My mother’s name was Allie, and when I was a little girl, he’d say, ‘Allie, she cook out the book!’ And I always thought, I wonder what he’s saying? After I thought about it when I was grown, I said, ‘I know what he’s saying! He’s talking about how good my mamma cooked, and she didn’t have to use a book’”
Lois Mims stopped baking this cake for a few years, but then her children started to ask for it again. Lois bakes her pineapple upside-down cake in a well-seasoned 9-inch cast-iron skillet.
For the topping:
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 15 oz. can of pineapple slices, drained and juice reserved
1 small jar of maraschino cherries (about 15), stemmed
For the cake:
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
2 tbsp reserved pineapple juice from can
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- To melt the butter for the cake, place 1 stick of butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and set it in the preheating oven until the butter is melted but not sizzling. Pour the melted butter into a heat-proof mixing bowl, and set aside. Allow the butter to cool, but not solidify.
- Place the remaining ½ stick of butter in the skillet and place the skillet back in the oven, until the butter is melted but not sizzling. Remove the skillet from the oven, and add the brown sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved; spread the brown sugar mixture into an even layer in the bottom of the skillet.
- Place one pineapple ring in the center of the skillet on top of the brown sugar mixture. Arrange five pineapple rings in a circle around the center ring. Cut the remaining pineapple rings in half, and arrange the half-circles around the outside edge of the skillet, pressing them against the sides of the pan, cut ends up. Place a maraschino cherry in the center of each pineapple ring, and rest one cherry in each half-ring against the sides of the pan. Set aside.
- Sift the flour and sugar together into the mixing bowl. Pour in the melted and cooled butter, eggs, milk, and pineapple juice. Stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients are just combined and few lumps remain. Gently pour the mixture over the fruit in the skillet. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula to be sure to get all of the batter out of the bowl and into the skillet. Use the spatula to evenly distribute the batter, cover all of the fruit, and level the batter’s surface. Place the skillet on the center rack of the hot oven.
- Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top of the cake is a deep golden brown and a knife inserted into the center batter comes out clean. Remove the skillet from the oven and set it aside onto a heat-proof surface to cool for 5 minutes.
- Run a knife around the outside edge of the cake to release any cake stuck to the pan. Place a heat-proof plate, inverted, over the skillet. With gloved hands, grasp both sides of the skillet and plate together, and invert the cake onto the plate. Remove the skillet. If any pieces of fruit are stuck to the skillet, quickly transfer them back onto the cake with a fork. The brown sugar glaze should drizzle slightly around the cake. Allow to cool, then serve immediately. Pineapple Upside-Down cake will keep for two or three days at room temperature, or for up to a week covered and refrigerated.
BAKING TIME: 40 to 45 minutes
COOLING TIME: 5 minutes prior to inverting, plus 1 hour before cutting
Recipe courtesy of Cake Ladies – Celebrating a Southern Tradition by Jodi Rhoden
United States Alabama [ print this recipe for Pineapple Upside-Down Cake ]