When you have just the right amount of boredom and just the right amount of nostalgia, cravings can lead into crazy projects. Exhibit A: pineapple cake.
Pineapple cake is something I only eat one time of the year. Aka the month after someone in the family returns from Taiwan. It’s like an unspoken rule: whoever goes must come back with at least couple boxes of pineapple cake from our select favorite pastry shops (and yes, we each have different favorites, which makes it a fun scavenger hunt on the last day).
In Mandarin, we have a term called 伴手禮, which roughly translates to souvenir (we actually have two terms for this 紀念品 – something to remember by) or local specialty (which is a little more accurate because we’re not talking keychains or tiny spoons here, we’re talking homegrown, locally made goods. It oftentimes in Taiwan means some kind of food, something you’d bring from your hometown when you visit friends, or something you’d pick up from a trip to share with friends and family at home. Taiwan’s most popular 伴手禮 is easily pineapple cake. It’s cute, portable, perfectly portioned. It’s sweet, easy to explain to people, fairly easy to enjoy (unless you hate pineapple, it’s probably the most inoffensive snack you could pick up).
I rarely eat pineapple cake when in Taiwan. I mean, there’s so much else to eat. So the boxes of rectangular pastries are saved as treats for home, a familiar sweetness to soften the blow of being away from the motherland once more. Neatly stored in the refrigerator or sometimes even the freezer to savor for as long as possible, the lingering taste of a faraway place.
For me, it’s more of a ritual than a craving. I’ll never say no to it, but I also don’t necessarily seek it out. Not at bakeries or grocery stores in the US (they’d never be up to snuff), and never in a million years did it ever occur to me to look up a recipe. That’s like, if I craved a Twix bar and decided to make it instead of just buying one. Like in theory, could I? Sure. But why go through all the trouble?
Anyways, this year, it doesn’t look like any of us are going anywhere soon. Plus, I’m on the other side of the country from my go-to SGV bakeries and 85C, so it pineapple cake seems particularly out of reach. And so I found myself cobbling together a really… rustic… version of my favorite post-Taiwan treat with questionable ingredients and no tools (note to self: aluminum foil molds just don’t hold up to real ones). It ain’t Sunny Hills, but shabby as they look, if you close your eyes they taste half decent.
Most of the ingredients can be found in any grocery store or bodega save for the maltose, which I ended up ordering online. Maltose is a sugar derived from malt, usually found in a thick, nearly solid syrup form and often used in Chinese cooking. It’s less sweet than sugar or fructose, and has a mild nutty flavor that makes it a popular traditional street candy. If I hadn’t been able to find it online, I’d probably just adjust the sugar added to the filling. Essentially, as long as you get the texture of the pineapple filling right, everything else can be adjusted to taste. After all, every bakery in Taiwan seems to take their own spin on it anyways.
Also, it’s worth noting that traditionally, they used pineapple combined with winter melon for a more jammy, sweet filling. These days, it’s more popular to go full pineapple, which ends up with a more fibrous, textured and tart filling. I was lazy and used canned pineapple, since it is sweeter than fresh pineapple in the US (fresh pineapple in Taiwan is so sweet it almost tastes like candy).
As for the pastry part, again there is a range of flavor profiles. The ultra traditional ones often use lard (or what I like to now call pork butter), and in my research (read: hours of googling in Chinese and English, scavenging antiquated blogs and home cooking videos), found that it is also popular to use cheese powder (literally that horrifically processed shelf-stable parmesan “cheese” you find in the pasta aisle) in addition to milk powder. These days, it’s more common to use butter, and the more buttery milk-y flavored rich pastry is more popular than the traditional ones (which are more egg yolk-y than buttery).
I opted to use a french technique, and ensure a crumbly crust by hard boiling the 2 of the egg yolks so that it doesn’t introduce too much moisture to the dough, but still included 1 raw egg yolk to bind it together just so.
And again, if you don’t have square or rectangular molds, it will look… rustic. But still taste delicious.
Of course, by now you’ve hopefully seen that pineapple cake isn’t cake at all. It’s more of a pastry. A crumbly crust wrapped around a jammy pineapple filling. Not sure who messed up the translation, but let’s be real, we’ve seen worse offenses.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, toasted
1/4 cups almond flour
2 tbsp milk powder
1/4 cups (half stick) salted butter
1/4 cups (half stick) unsalted butter
2 hard boiled egg yolks
1 egg yolk
1/4 cups granulated/superfine sugar
20 oz can of crushed pineapple
1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cups maltose
Make the pineapple filling
Make the pastry
Assemble the pineapple cake