Don’t think for a minute this cake is named for its dainty lightness. Unlike the hummingbird, this cake is a dense, voluptuous beauty — the origins of its name still a mystery. A darling of the Southern baker, Hummingbird cake seems to appear in spring with the flowering of quince, plum and daffodils — the early spring bloomers. As we throw off the mantle of winter, stretch our little muscles, frolic in the sunlight and breathe in the fresh air, celebrate the glory of spring with a cake worthy of the moment.
British chef Jamie Oliver, equally intrigued with the idea of Hummingbird Cake says it will cause endless excitement among Americans and complete bafflement for everyone else. “The Hummingbird cake is a very unusual one. For a start, it’s made with oil rather than butter, and contains more fruit than flour. The mix doesn’t need beating, goes dynamite with a cream cheese icing and often involves spices and nuts. Contrary to the name, there are no birds in this particular recipe.”
Oliver has added a few new twists to the popular deep-south Hummingbird recipe including lime-zest in the cream-cheese frosting and a brilliant pecan brittle topping “achieved by melting sugar and mixing it with broken pecan pieces, then smashing it into crumbs.” The result is an incredible crunch on top of the cake that makes it even more tempting.
The best clue to the Hummingbird’s origins lie in its key ingredients — bananas and pineapple. If you’re thinking Caribbean, you’re on the right track — it’s thought to have been invented in Jamaica in the late 1960s under the name the “Doctor Bird Cake.” The Doctor Bird was a nickname for a Jamaican variety of hummingbird called the Red Billed Streamertail. In the late ’60s the Jamaican tourist board in an attempt to attract tourists sent out press kits to the United States including a few recipes from the island, like one for the Doctor Bird Cake.
The first American printed recipe for the cake was by Mrs. L.H. Wiggin who supplied the recipe to Southern Living Magazine in February 1978, but by then the cake was winning baking competitions across the south and was called the “cake that doesn’t last.”
As the cake is based on two essential flavors, it’s important to get them right. Sally McKenney, who modified the Southern Living recipe to use less oil, less sugar and more bananas advises:
Bananas — brown and spotty. The uglier your bananas, the better the flavor. Odd, but true.
Pineapple — crushed and canned. You may want to use fresh pineapple that you crush yourself and yes, that’s absolutely fine! But one 8 ounce can of crushed pineapple in *most* of its juices is what I reached for in my testing. Convenient and oh my goodness … the flavor.
You would think overripe bananas would be easy to come by, but on my baking day there were none to be had. I’ll share an internet tip discovered by Carole from Raley’s pharmacy: to ripen bananas, lay them unpeeled on a parchment-covered baking sheet and put in a 300 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. You’ll know when they are ready because the peels turn a uniform black and the bananas inside are just the right mooshiness.
Homemade hummingbird cake is exceptionally moist and flavorful with three delicious layers and silky cream cheese frosting. Adapted from Southern Living by Sally McKenney with interesting additions by Jamie Oliver. Recipe serves 12 to 14.
- 2 cups chopped pecans
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups mashed banana (4 over-ripe bananas)
- one 8 ounce can crushed pineapple with most of its juice
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil (or melted coconut oil)
- 1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Cream cheese frosting:
- two 8-ounce block cream cheeses, softened room temperature (16 ounces)
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 5 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- Lime zest and a squeeze of juice from one lime
- 1 ½ cups pecans
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- Splash of water
Instructions: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread pecans onto a lined baking pan. Toast for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven. Turn oven up to 350 degrees, then grease and lightly flour three 9-inch cake pans. Whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk the rest of the cake ingredients in a medium bowl. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined. Fold in 1 and 1/2 cups toasted pecans and save the rest for garnish.