Usually, when you talk about food from earlier in the 20th century, you're in for some disappointments — to put it mildly. A lot of that era involved , and if there's a more off-putting concept than the known as bananas hollandaise, we're not sure what it could be. But when you get into baked goods, you discover some hidden gems amidst the horror, including some surprising dishes you really should try for yourself. One of them is million dollar cake.
Despite being a surprisingly simple, no-frills recipe heretofore favored largely by grandmothers, million dollar cake has a lot going for it. In particular, it brings some flavors to the table like pineapple that are probably underused in baking; sure, everyone has eaten (or at least seen) a pineapple upside-down cake, but that's not really a "cake" in the most traditional sense. Million dollar cake, though, dials up the classic cake identity to 11.
One important thing to understand about million dollar cake is there's not one determined, ironclad recipe. There are a lot of ways to customize this cake (owing in part to its generally pretty basic nature), so you'll see a lot of different recipes. We're not even sure where it came from; there's no clear origin story for million dollar cake (although indications are it's probably southern). Nevertheless, there are some commonalities between the different variants.
The main point of overlap is what you're looking at in the above image: pineapple. Pineapple is the signature flavor of million dollar cake, the engine on which it runs. The key point here is layered yellow cake with a mixture of pineapple (often processed until it has a consistency similar to applesauce) and maybe mandarin oranges running throughout. Cover it in cream cheese frosting, maybe top it with a few more mandarin orange slices, and you've got a million dollar cake.
This cake combines all the lightness of a retro midwestern dessert like ambrosia while sidestepping some of the flavors and textures that the modern eater may find off-putting. Mandarin oranges can be a contentious issue in baking; decorating your cake in them can look a little bit old-fashioned and amateurish, which is why some million dollar cake recipes leave it off. However, a base of yellow cake and pineapple means there's a sturdy underpinning for whatever else you'd like to do with the recipe.
Whatever you choose to do with your fruity, creamy creation, you're starting from a pretty good place. Pineapple upside-down cake can sometimes have a bit of an odd, heavy texture, but million dollar cake doesn't suffer from that issue. Next time you're looking to try a new recipe and you want something light and airy, consider reaching for the million dollar cake.