Sometimes at home, I will pull something out of the oven and be pleasantly surprised with how beautiful it turned out. The glistening golden brown skin of an oven roasted turkey, a buttery caramel-colored cake top, bubbly, slightly browned mozzarella melted over lasagna, all those things cause me to pause, just briefly, and think, “Huh, that turned out pretty.”
I can’t say that happens when dutch oven cooking. Usually, I open the lid, steam comes rushing out, and once it is cleared I think, “Well that looks like a disorganized pile in a pot.” I’m not saying it doesn’t look delicious, just beautiful never comes to mind.
Pineapple upside down cake in the dutch oven is a different story. I lifted the lid and smells of sweet pineapple and rich cheese cake filled the air. I thought, “That smells fantastic and looks delicious.” But then I flipped the cake over, and it was a melted blend of rich reds, and golden yellows and oranges from the pineapples, cherries and brown sugar. It looked like a little watercolor painting sitting on a plate. It was beautiful.
I passed the plate around the campfire and told everyone to look how beautiful our dessert was. “Almost to pretty to eat,” my dad said. “Almost.”
He was right. While it was a passing moment of admiration, the cake was gone with no leftovers, not even crumbs on the plate, in a matter of minutes.
To start this beautiful dessert, line a 10″ dutch oven with foil. Foil is helpful for a few reasons. First, it keeps the dutch oven cleaner. Sugar can really bake down deep into the cast iron and can be difficult to clean-up. Second, it helps with flipping over the cake. Finally, the aluminum helps keep more delicate foods, like cakes, breads, and biscuits, from burning to the bottom of the oven.
After you line the oven, start the coals. I use a charcoal chimney when I am camping. They heat the coals quickly, and the chimney is easy to use. Simply pour the desired number of charcoal briquettes in the top, wad up a few pieces of newspaper and stuff them under the chimney, and light the newspaper. The chimney should start to smoke and the coals should be ready in about 15 minutes. You can tell they are ready to go when the top layer of coals start to turn to ash around the edges.
In the foil lined oven, melt a stick of butter. Once fully melted, spread it to the edges of the oven and then sprinkle a light coating of brown sugar. Lay the pineapple slices and maraschino cherries into the buttery sugar mixture.
In a large bowl, pour in a box of cake mix. I used a mix specifically made for pineapple upside down cake, but a yellow, white, or even angel food cake would be a nice alternative. Normally, at home, I would say to make a cake base from scratch, but this is outdoor cooking and delicious but simple is the name of the game. To the cake mix, add four eggs, a box of cheesecake flavored instant pudding, 1/2 cup oil, and the juice from the pineapple can. Mix everything until the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth and silky. Pour the batter over the pineapples and cherries. Evenly spread the batter over the entire oven.
On a solid surface, like a flat rock or metal grate, place 12-14 coals and set the oven on top. Place about 15-20 coals on the top of the oven. I also like to check the temperature of my oven by using my hand to guesstimate where things are at. I read this online, and while it isn’t a fool proof method, I have found that it has not failed me yet. So, place your hand about 6 to 8 inches above the dutch oven. You should only be able to hold it there for about five seconds. If you can do this, you are at about 350 degrees, which is what the cake needs to cook at. If you can hold it there longer, say ten seconds, you are more around 250-300 and you need to add more coals. If you are only able to hold it there for a second or two, you are too hot, more around 400, and need to remove a couple of coals from the bottom.
This cake takes about an hour to bake. At around the 45 minute mark, I start to hang out much closer to the dutch oven. As soon as I smell the unmistakable scent of pineapple and cheesecake, I check the cake. To see if the cake is ready, first do a touch test. Lightly press on the top of the cake in the center, if it is finished baking it will lightly spring back when pressed on. Second, you can insert a tooth pick in the center of the cake and it should come back out clean. The top will have a light brown color.
To make this cake truly upside down, use the foil to pull the entire cake from the oven. Set the cake on a flat surface and place your serving plate on top of the cake. Gently slide your hand under the cake, place the other hand on the plate, and flip.