The Best Winter-time Crumb Cake

Monday March 22, 2010

Dole Pineapple plantation on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu/photo by Carrie Donohue

Once a local restaurant asked me to do a private cooking class and streamline a fresh- tasting fruit crumb cake for them that would serve a large amount of people at brunch. I made this fresh pineapple crumb cake with a yeasted sweet dough, cheese layer, and fresh pineapple filling in a half sheet pan. It was a smash hit. I cooked up an easy as can be fresh pineapple and vanilla filling and the aroma that wafted up from that pan, I still remember today. It was pure ambrosia, as well as being one of those moments cooking that are a revelation of sorts.

This past year my supermarket has been flooded with fresh pineapples for months. I have never seen so many fresh pineapples at one time, even having its own display stand with multiple shelves. All of a sudden, pineapple was cheap and not something reserved for special occasions. So I started eating way more fresh pineapple. Leave the fruit on the counter for 2 to 3 days, until a lovely fruity smell is emitted, and voila, time to tackle cutting and portioning it. Cutting a pineapple is a bit of a chore, but the juicy interior is worth the labor.

The wild pineapple is native to southern Brazil and Paraguay, so it is a New World fruit. The Indians traveled by dugout canoe and brought the pineapple with them up through South and Central America to the West Indies before Columbus arrived (that has to be one hellava trip). In 1493 Columbus landed and found the fruit on the island of Guadaloupe and, of course, carried it back to Spain as part of his loot of gold. The Renaissance Europe to which Columbus returned with his pina was a society largely bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was a rare commodity, imported at great cost from the Middle East. Fresh fruit was also a rare item; orchard-grown fruit being available in only limited varieties for brief periods of time. Pineapple was a hit for European royal dining tables, simply cut and served au naturale, as well as used whole for centerpieces. The New World’s pineapple–whose juicy-ripe golden-yellow pulp literally exploded natural sweetness when chewed–made the fruit an item of celebrity and curiosity for royal gourmet and horticulturist alike.

By the end of the 16th century, Portuguese and Spanish explorers introduced pineapples into many of their Asian, African and South Pacific colonies, such as the Philippines, countries in which the pineapple is still being grown today. Pineapples were beloved by the American Colonists, but since the fruit was a bit delicate and not taking to the sea travel, all manner of candied and preserved pineapple was shipped from the Indies to New England and the South to feed their culinary pineapple addictions.

Despite dogged efforts by European gardeners, it was nearly two centuries before they were able to perfect a hothouse method for growing pineapple plants. The small plant adapts well to container and greenhouse culture as well as making an interesting potted plant. In the 18th century, pineapples began to be cultivated in Hawaii, the only state in the U.S. in which they are still grown (Florida and California gave it a try along with the banana).

Pineapples are actually not just one fruit, but a composite of many flowers whose individual “fruitlets” fuse together around a central core. Each fruitlet can be identified by a spiny “eye,” the rough marking on the pineapple’s rough surface.

Beth Recommends:  To choose a ripe pineapple, look for a strong sweet fragrance and quilted yellow-brown skin that is not too green; the leafy crown will will be a bright green and an inner leaf will detach easily when plucked from the center. Look for pineapples that are heavy for their size. While larger pineapples will have a greater proportion of edible flesh, there is usually no difference in quality between a small and large size pineapple.

Pineapples should be free of soft spots, bruises and darkened “eyes,” all of which may indicate that the pineapple is past its prime. Pineapple stops ripening as soon as it is picked, so choose fruit with a fragrant sweet smell at the stem end. Avoid pineapple that smells musty, sour or fermented.

After two days at room temperature, if you are still not ready to consume the pineapple, you should wrap it in a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for a maximum of three to five days. Pineapple that has been cut up should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

Recipe: Pineapple Cheese Crumb Cake

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