Monday, August 04, 2008

‘Unusual Prune Dishes’

August 4 ...

I came across a reference in a newspaper (American) from July 1925 of an ‘unusual cake’ which turned out to be an upside-down cake. The recipe suggested that any fruit could be used, but suggested pineapple because it produced a ‘novel effect’, and was also very wholesome.

So, as I am always interested in ‘First Recipes For ….’ I am setting up the challenge to find the first upside-down cake. You are expected to participate. The best I have been able to do is one from March 1923, in the Syracuse Herald. There must be earlier versions, as newspaper recipe columns usually respond to readers queries and current fashions.

This particular version from 1923 could arguably also have ‘a novel effect’ as it uses prunes (which are also at least as wholesome as pineapple, surely?). It appeared in a recipe column headed ‘Unusual Prune Dishes.'

Upside-Down Cake.
Wash and soak the prunes in warm water for several hours: drain and remove pits; beat one egg till light, gradually add one-half cup of sugar; beat until creamy. Measue one cup sifted flour, sift again with one teaspoon baking powder; add to the egg mixture alternately with one quarter cup milk or water, beat well; add two tablespoons melted shortening, one teaspoon vanilla. Melt two tablespoons butter in a small iron frying pan: spread one half cup brown sugar evenly over pan, then one quarter cup chopped walnuts; cover with prunes, then pour on cake batter.
Bake in a moderate oven about 25 minutes. Will serve five persons.

The other thing that this recipe indicates to me is how much better, generally speaking, we are about recipe-writing these days. The instructions in this are a bit unclear – surely the cake is not cooked in the ‘small frying pan’, but the caramel-walnut mix is poured into the cake pan, then topped with prunes and cake batter? Also – can someone better at geometry or trigonometry or cake-cutting please tell me why this will serve five persons, not six, or eight? Or four greedies?

The challenge is made. Any earlier versions?

Quotation for the Day …

When my mother had to get dinner for eight she’d just make enough for sixteen and only serve half. Gracie Allen.


Anonymous said...

surely the cake is not cooked in the 'small frying pan', but the caramel-walnut mix is poured into the cake pan, then topped with prunes and cake batter
Actually, I'll bet it WAS intended to be cooked in the frying pan! In the days before plastic-handled cookware, an iron frying pan could easily transition from stovetop to oven. However, don't try this unless you have an all-metal frying pan (or skillet) :-)

An alternative is to melt the butter in a baking dish -- stick it in the preheating oven, remove to add the other ingredients, then pop back in to cook.

I can't guess why it might be for five people, though. What a silly way to cut a cake...

Unknown said...

I agree with cleanser, the recipe will work as written if the pan is of the right size of small (sic) and of a material that is able to transition to the oven.

The 25 minute bake time also tells me that the cake is supposed to cook in the pan. Twenty-five minutes would not be enough time for a cake of this mass started in a cold cake pan. But that period would be appropriate, I think, if started in pan that was already warm.

Finally, the portion size is a bit generous, but perhaps the cook was a bit of a gavone.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello -the inscrutable Gary Allen has also emailed me on this exact topic. It seems that the idea of an upside down cake is an American idea, as is the bake-in-a-frypan idea. I look forward to more on this debate.

Anonymous said...

"surely the cake is not cooked in the ‘small frying pan’"

Absolutely, yes, upside-down cakes were originally baked directly in the cast-iron frying pan in which the butter was melted. I'm from the Deep South and that's the way my family always did it. I'm afraid no modern 18/8 stainless-steel wonder pan could come close. ;-) Part of the magic was the caramelized crust, enhanced in no small part by the well-seasoned cast iron.

Even non-Southern delicacies such as "Manka's babies" (as James Beard called them) [also known as "Dutch babies" or "Dutch apple pancake"] were, and are, made this way, with butter melted in a cast-iron skillet and the remaining ingredients added atop, then finished in the oven.

Anonymous said...

Good morning, All from clear, sunny and not too hot Washington DC!

Regarding upside down cakes, if one accepts Tarte Tatin as a cake rather than a pie, its history is given at this link and it seems to be a 19th century "discovery".

srhcb said...

Prior to eating the cake, you might wish to serve this soup, (recipe for five people):

Anonymous said...

The fruit that went into the pan first looks great when turned upside down onto a serving plate for portioning.

The Old Foodie said...

I am loving this exchange of ideas and information. I have a feeling that this topic is not closed yet.