In praise of upside down

They want you to want them.


But first, a rant about frosting:

If you’re looking for a highly efficient sugar-delivery mechanism, it’s hard to beat frosting. It seems to have an almost unlimited capacity for absorbing sugar, and given our willingness to consume, dessert makers tend to keep adding it. In a home kitchen, recipes for frosting (or icing, if you prefer) keep pouring in the sugar as well. I simply distrust any situation where adding sugar, and more sugar, and more sugar, is a key method for adjusting the consistency of your concoction.

You may not spend much time doing sugar audits of your recipe file, but if you did, you might be surprised. Over the years I have often had something called Buttermilk Brownie Cake, known to many as Texas Sheet Cake. The recipes I looked at have a ratio of two cups of flour to two cups of sugar, not unusual for cake. But that all gets covered by a frosting that calls for a pound of powdered sugar–roughly four cups.

Maybe it’s a huge recipe, though, right? Well, it’s baked in a 15 x 10 sheet pan. My mom often cuts treats made in a sheet pan into 48 pieces, but most people eat more than one. The recipes I consulted said this batch serves either 15 or 20.

So 16 ounces or 454 grams of powdered sugar in the frosting, and 14.2 ounces or 400 grams in the cake itself. That’s 854 grams of sugar, or 57 grams (more than a quarter cup) per serving, if you cut the cake into 15 pieces.



The American Heart Association puts a maximum on added sugar of about 38 grams a day for men, 25 grams a day for women. So that piece of cake is 1.5 times the maximum for men, more than twice the maximum for women. And that’s your budget for the entire day–not only do you get no ice cream with that cake, but you’d better have had plain yogurt instead of sweet for breakfast (or shredded wheat–corn flakes have added sugar), no jam on your toast, and on and on.

This hardly seems fair. Can’t a person enjoy a little dessert?

We’re probably going to eat some, no matter what the health experts say, so perhaps our best course is to consider strategies that will let us have our cake and not overdose on sugar, too.

There are a number of options, of course.* I have several recipes in my personal stash that use a variety of techniques to dial back the sugar. One cookie recipe calls for less sugar in the dough and then rolls each ball in a little sugar before baking. Putting the sweetness right on your tongue lets you use less.

I’ll do a post on some of these recipes in the future. Today, I’m here to sing the praises of upside down, as in cake.



For years, El Guapo’s cake of choice for his birthday has been Pineapple Upside Down Cake.†

The recipe I use for the cake is a one-egg cake from a really old edition of Joy of Cooking–I think the one from 1964. It’s reliable, straightforward and very tasty. Before we get to that, though, we want to prepare the upside down part of the event. This involves layering melted butter, drained crushed pineapple, chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans are favorites) and brown sugar. Amounts are flexible, with the smaller amount indicated probably fine for a 9 x 9 inch pan. You can melt the butter in the pan in the preheating oven, or melt it in the microwave and add to the pan.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

In a 9 x 9 or a 9 x 13 inch pan, layer the following:

1/4 to 1/3 cup each of melted butter, brown sugar, chopped nuts and drained crushed pineapple. If it looks too scanty, you can scatter a bit more on, but this is a good place to start.

For the cake:

In a bowl with steep sides, mix with a hand mixer for two minutes at medium speed:
1 3/4 cup flour (225 g)
1 1/8 to 1 1/4 cup sugar (225-250 g; can be a bit less)
1/3 cup soft butter (75 g)
2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk (160 ml)

Add and mix for two more minutes:
1 egg
1/3 c. milk (80 ml)
1 t. vanilla

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 375 until golden brown. Testing with a wooden pick will certainly tell you if it’s not quite done, though if you poke it all the way to the bottom when it’s done, the pick might come up sticky from the sweet stuff. You might be better off relying on some gentle pressure from a finger: when the cake is done it will spring back. It’s likely to take somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 minutes, depending on your oven.

Cool for a couple of minutes, run a knife around the edges to help loosen the cake from the pan. To invert the cake it’s best to choose something that’s roughly the same size as the pan you used for baking so you can hold it firmly in place and flip the whole thing. Let it sit for a minute to make sure everything has come loose. Use a scraper to get any of the sweet stuff left clinging to the baking pan and transfer it back to what is now the top of the cake.



Served with some lovely whipped cream, the deliciousness is going to take up all your attention, so it won’t be until afterward that you can spare a thought for the way that this cake manages to bring the sweetness without drowning you in sugar. This recipe is slightly smaller than the buttermilk brownie cake in terms of volume of ingredients, but scaling up by 1.5 times, the brownie cake frosting still has about 400% the sugar of the upside down layer featured here. Let me know if you try it–I’d love to know what you think.

If you’re not a fan of pineapple, try this with some other fruit. It would probably be great with chopped cherries, for instance, or with thinly sliced peaches. Or leave out the fruit entirely, and see how it goes with just the butter, brown sugar and nuts. Maybe this is the kind of research project you’ve been looking for.

*This link at Epicurious is the first source I looked at for decreasing sugar in desserts. I’m sure the internet is bulging with people’s views, so a search should keep you busy for a long time.

†Distractions in the kitchen have consequences, as I well know. One year I made Inadvertently-Pineapple-Free Upside Down Cake, but we ended up spooning the pineapple over the cake, so all was not lost. I’ve also done one including shredded unsweetened coconut–excellent addition.

[Images:,, El Guapo, pinterest]








One thought on “In praise of upside down

  1. Pingback: The Great Yule Loaf Burning, or “Frosting to the rescue” | Lori Notes

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