Gluten-free Piña Colada Upside Down Cake

I’d really like to call this “Piña Colada Pineapple Upside Down Cake”, but I feel like it already has such a long, unwieldy name . . . how else can I describe the moist, springy cake softly scented with coconut, with the tangy-sweet fruit on top and the rich dark molasses-y syrup soaking into it? Then for accuracy’s sake I’d also have to add in “gluten-free” and “dairy-free” and “Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Piña Colada Pineapple Upside Down Cake” . . . that’s a mouthful. And I think the cake speaks for itself in that regard.

It’s always fun to add a new flavor to my gluten-free repertoire – and it’s all built on Hodgson Mill’s Gluten-Free Cake Mix, which I love. No matter what I do to it, it has a nice, light, springy texture, and it’s just sweet enough. It’s such a good base for so many variations! I’m plotting many, many more…

This was a last-minute addition to my baking schedule, a special gift for a friend who eats gluten-free and dairy-free. (Fortunately not egg-free too . . .then it starts to get tricky). Anyway, I tweaked this recipe so she could enjoy it and I have to say, it worked really, really well. The coconut flavor along with the pineapple was a wonderful result (though not unanticipated. If I substitute a banana for an egg in the next batch, this will be a seriously tropical cake.)

You start out with a fantastically decadent syrup of melted butter (I mean, non-dairy buttery spread), brown sugar, and light corn syrup. Instead of the usual bulls-eyes of pineapple rings with cherries in the core, I wanted a chrysanthemum-like bloom – I think it looked really pretty in the pre-bake phase. It grew apart a little bit in the finished product. I’ll work on that.

Pause: Did you know you can make your own brown sugar? That’s what I did here, for the first time ever, and I’m hooked–I love being able to customize the amount of molasses flavor in it. 1 cup white granulated sugar to 1 tablespoon molasses is the basic ratio—use more or less to customize the darkness of the sugar. Mix together and fluff with a fork, and DONE. I can’t believe I’ve bought separate boxes of it all, for so many years . . .

Once the syrup topping foundation is laid, it’s time to mix the cake batter. As usual with this mix, start mixing slowly, and don’t skimp on the 2 minutes of mixing on a medium-high speed, to activate the xanthan gum binder and whip some air into the batter. This batter is thicker than regular wheat-flour batter, and will try to climb up your beaters.

And voila—time to pour in the cake pan. Gently distribute the batter as evenly as you can, so as not to disturb the pineapple slice design.

You’ll need to smooth out the top carefully, as this cake mix tends to keep the whorls and swirls left when you pour it into the pan. Use a spatula dipped in warm water to smooth it out, or your finger can also work.

Bake, and be patient—I still wonder why this mix takes so much longer to bake than wheat-flour cake, but the end result is worth it. After one last tricky flip to invert the hot cake pan onto a heatproof plate, you have a moist, tropical treat fragrant with coconut and punctuated with sharply sweet chunks of caramelized pineapple—it’s awfully nice to enjoy with a nice, slightly bitter coffee (island breezes and sunset optional).

I’ve written the recipe in its “Piña Colada” format below (meaning, dairy-free, with lots of coconut), and I’m putting in additional substitutions just in case you just don’t like coconut, or can’t get coconut products, in which case it’s just a regular old pineapple upside down cake. If anyone else has other tweaks, questions, or suggestions . . . including suggestions of the most accurate, descriptive name for this great cake . .. I hope you’ll share in the comments!

(Special thanks to Kevin Good for the gorgeous photos. Come over with your fancy camera again, Kevin . . . I’ll be baking.)

Gluten Free Piña Colada Upside-Down Cake

Syrup & Topping
¼ cup non-dairy butter-flavored spread, such as Earth Balance (dairy choice: butter)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
9 slices pineapple, drained (fresh, or from 16 or 20-oz. can of pineapple in 100% juice, unsweetened.)
9 maraschino cherries, drained

1 box (15 oz.) Hodgson Mill Gluten Free Yellow Cake Mix
1/3 cup coconut oil (or 1/3 cup flavorless vegetable oil, or ½ cup softened butter)
2/3 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 350° F. In 9-inch cake pan, melt ¼ cup non-dairy buttery spread in oven. Stir in brown sugar and corn syrup; spread evenly in pan. Arrange pineapple slices on brown sugar mixture; place cherry in center of each pineapple slice. (To make the design pictured here, cut the pineapple slices into 6-8 arc-shaped pieces each, start with a tight ring of pineapple arcs around a central cherry, and build out with cherries and half-circles from there.)

In a large bowl, first cream coconut oil if it has hardened. Then add rest of cake ingredients, and blend. (If using a liquid oil, omit first mixing and simply blend all ingredients. If using butter, it could use the initial mixing to make sure it’s soft and fluffy.). Beat all ingredients on low speed 30 seconds until combined, then on medium speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.

Pour batter carefully over pineapple and cherries, trying not to disturb the pattern. (Spread it evenly, and smooth it out, as the cake tends to keep the shape of the uncooked batter when it goes into the oven.)

Bake 38 to 43 minutes or until surface is golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Immediately run knife around side of pan to loosen cake. Place heatproof serving plate upside down onto pan; turn plate and pan over together. Leave pan over cake 5 minutes so brown sugar topping can drizzle over cake. Carefully remove pan; cool 30 minutes.

Notes: Do not use 8-inch square pan as there will be too much batter and it will not bake all the way through. (A 10-inch round pan also works.) Serve warm or cool. Store covered in refrigerator. Keeps 2 days or so, but will absorb sauce and get soggy over time.