By Gil Marks
Post by Gil Marks
“The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.”
—Opening line of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming (1960)
Hummingbird cake -— also variously called banana-pineapple cake, doctor bird cake, Doctor Byrd cake, bird of paradise cake, bumblebee cake, doesn’t last cake, Jamaican cake, never ending cake, and nothing left cake –- features tropical bananas and canned crushed pineapple lightly accented with cinnamon. It is made with oil, akin to carrot, zucchini, and applesauce cakes that utilize chemical leavening and eggs -— without the creaming of butter cakes -– to create an easy, intensely moist, rich, and flavorsome treat. Pecans are a popular 1970s supplement from the American South. Some versions also call for shredded coconut, cherries, or strawberries. It is typically paired with cream cheese frosting. Today, hummingbird cake is generally baked in two or three round layers, while doctor bird cake/Dr. Byrd cake is more commonly prepared in a tube or Bundt pan, but the terms are used interchangeably.
The earliest record of adding bananas to cake batter was in 1932. The idea of using canned crushed pineapple along with its liquid in a batter (without any bananas) dates back to around the same time in the Great Depression to 1930 and “paradise cake” (also containing chopped dates, nuts, and cinnamon). (Pineapple upside-down cake, with canned slices on the bottom/top, showed up a few years earlier in 1923.) The novelty of combining both bananas and pineapple in a cake first appeared in print in America in the early 1970s.
Although now entrenched in the American South, this treat originated as “doctor bird cake” in the late 1960s, without any frosting, somewhat further south — on the island of Jamaica. “Doctor bird” is a Jamaican nickname for its national fowl, the Red-billed Streamertail, a member of the hummingbird family. The nickname purportedly arose because the bird probes a flower with its long beak reminiscent of a doctor examining a patient. According to legend, its association with the cake stemmed from the cake being so sweet with fruit and sugar as to attract hummingbirds. Or the yellow streaks reminded people of those birds. Others contend the cake tastes so delicious it makes people hum like a bird. Most probably both the cake and its name originated as a Jamaican marketing ploy. After Air Jamaica was established in October 1968, the new company chose the beloved doctor bird as its logo. Shortly thereafter, the Jamaica Tourism Board distributed recipes to the foreign media showcasing various ‘local’ dishes aimed for American consumers and intended to attract American visitors to the island, as reported in the March 29, 1969 issue of the Kingston Daily Gleaner (Jamaica): “Press kits presented included Jamaican menu modified for American kitchens, and featured recipes like the doctor bird cake, made from bananas.”
Within a few years, doctor bird cake -— some Southerners opted to use the spelling Byrd, a familiar regional name dating back to early Virginia –- began showing up in American small-town newspapers and community cookbooks. The February 26, 1972 issue of the Mexico Ledger (Mexico, MO) contained a trio of identical banana-pineapple recipes, baked in a tube pan and absent any nuts or frosting, variously appearing under the titles “Doctor Bird Cake,” “A Cake That Doesn’t Last,” and “Tropical Treat Cake.”
The term hummingbird cake made its earliest appearance in the March 1, 1972 Edwardsville Intelligencer (IL) in an ad (page 10) for a cafeteria from nearby Saint Louis: “Humming Bird Cake $2.85.” Later ads described it as “A moist, delicious-ring cake made with crushed pineapple and bananas.” A few years later, the June 13, 1976 issue (page 14) of the Port Arthur News (TX) reported on the first runner-up in the cakes division in the 19th Annual News Cookbook: “Mrs. Scott B. Herrin Jr. with her rendition of Hummingbird Cake.” (It lost to Sour Cream Rhubarb Squares.) A few days later in the June 16 issue, The Port Arthur News followed up: “Mrs. Herrin’s recipe for Hummingbird Cake already proved its ‘prize worthiness’ around The News offices as one employee baked her recipe and brought it for everyone to taste. The cake lasted for only a short while. At any rate, Mrs. Herrin was indeed a winner and so was the delicious Hummingbird Cake.”
In response to an April 1977 reader request for a “Hummingbird Cake,” the May 19, 1977 Washington Post included a recipe — calling for “nuts ½ cup” and baked in a “tube of Bundt pan” — ending: “For the icing, use a cream cheese-type topping, or none at all.” The cake fortuitously reached the United States corresponding to the time when Americans began pairing carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting, which became the standard accompaniment to hummingbird cake as well. The sweet and slightly tangy cream cheese frosting enhances the flavor of the cake’s fruit. After a recipe for “Hummingbird Cake,” featuring three layers and replete with “pecans or walnuts” and cream cheese frosting, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, appeared in the February 1978 Southern Living magazine, it quickly became a Southern classic. In 1978, according to The Kentucky Derby Museum Cook Book (1986), a hummingbird cake won the blue ribbon at the Kentucky State Fair.
A variation with canned crushed pineapple and without bananas and frosting, baked in a 13- by 9-inch pan, was entitled “Granny Cake” in Aluminum Light by the Aluminum Workers International Union (1978). Toward the end of the 20th century, the pineapple version of hummingbird cake (banana-less, but sometimes adding coconut) — usually with a cream cheese frosting — was called the prosaic “crushed pineapple cake”; “Oklahoma cake” (I haven’t the faintest idea of the connection between the Sooner State and pineapple, although pecans are cultivated there); and “preacher cake” (purportedly because all of the ingredients were in the typical pantry and could be whipped up in a hurry when someone important, like the preacher, paid an unannounced visit). Preacher cake –- not having to depend on ripe bananas in the house — certainly became a fixture at many church gatherings.
Unlike traditional banana cakes, the fruit in hummingbird cake is usually left in pieces rather than mashed, providing texture and bursts of flavor, along with the pineapple and nuts. The batter is mixed in a single bowl by hand, as beaters would impair the texture. The following recipe, in the classic Southern style, uses a rather generous amount of frosting. You can certainly halve the frosting recipe or, for a simpler and dairy-free presentation, omit the frosting and sprinkle the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Some Southern cooks like to add a splash of bourbon to the frosting (and almost anything else).
In some American homes, hummingbird cake became a traditional special occasion dessert, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, and birthdays. It is also a favorite at informal events, such as picnics, potlucks, and funerals. No birds were harmed in the preparation of this cake!
THK asks... are you baking anything fun for Memorial Day weekend?
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- 3 cups all-purpose flour 12.75 ounces/360 grams
- 2 cups granulated sugar, or 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup packed light brown sugar 14 ounces/400 grams
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil or peanut oil 9 ounces/260 grams
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten scant 2/3 cup/5.25 ounces/150 grams
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups diced very ripe bananas about 4 medium or 2 large/16 ounces/455 grams
- 1 cup canned crushed pineapple with juice 8 ounces/225 grams
- 1/2 to 1 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts 2 to 4 ounces/60 to 120 grams
Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients
- 2 cups cream cheese, softened 16 ounces/445 grams
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened (65 to 67°F) 2 sticks/8 ounces/225 grams
- About 8 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted 2 pounds/1 kg
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts (optional) 2 ounces/60 grams
VariationsSubstitute 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg and ½ teaspoon ground cloves for the cinnamon. Or use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon nutmeg, and ½ teaspoon ground ginger. Hummingbird Cupcakes: Divide the batter between 16 (2½-inch) cupcake tins lined with paper liners and bake for about 20 minutes. After cooling, spread a layer of the frosting over top. Almond Hummingbird Cake: In the batter, substitute 1 cup chopped almonds for the pecans and 1 teaspoon almond extract for the vanilla. Lower Fat Hummingbird Cake: Reduce the oil to ¼ cup and add ¾ cup unsweetened applesauce. Bird of Paradise Cake: With the pineapple, add 1 cup (8 ounces/225 grams) canned mandarin oranges. Coconut Hummingbird Cake: Add 1 cup (2.5 ounces/75 grams) shredded coconut to the batter and/or press 1 cup coconut against the top and sides of the frosted cake. For Pina Colada Cake: Omit the bananas. Coconut Cream Frosting: Reduce the butter to 1/2 cup (1 stick) and add ½ cup sour cream , 1 cup shredded coconut, and ½ teaspoon coconut flavoring. Mango-Pineapple Cake: Substitute 1 peeled, seeded, and chopped mango for the bananas. Preacher Cake: Omit the bananas and increase the pineapple (with juice) to 20 ounces (2½ cups) and baking soda to 2 teaspoons. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Cake: Add ½ to 1 cup coarsely chopped maraschino cherries or strawberries to the batter.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (325°F for a convection oven). Grease and flour three 9- by 1½-inch round cake pans, two 9- by 2-inch round pans, one 10-inch (12-cup) Bundt or tube pan, one 13- by 9- by 2-inch pan, or one 17- by 11-inch jelly-roll pan.In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
- Add the oil, eggs, and vanilla and stir just to mix.
- Fold in the bananas, pineapple (and juice), and nuts. Do not use an electric mixer. (Cover the bananas with the pineapple until ready to use to keep them from turning brown.)
- Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans, smoothing the top. Bake until set in the center and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes for 9- by 1½-inch pan; 40 to 50 minutes for 9- by 2-inch round pans; 70 to 80 minutes for a Bundt pan; 40 to 50 minutes for a 13- by 9-inch pan; or about 25 minutes for a jelly-roll pan. Do not over bake; you want a moist cake.
- Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, remove the cakes to a wire rack and let cool completely, at least 1½ hours. Wrap tightly in plastic, then foil. Store at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Hummingbird cake tastes even better after standing for a day.
- To make the frosting: In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth, about 1 minute.
- Gradually add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the vanilla.
- To assemble: Place a cake layer on a serving plate, spread with a generous stratum of frosting (¾ to 1 cup on top of each layer).
- Top with a second cake layer, spread with frosting, and top with the third cake layer.
- Spread the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. If using, sprinkle the top or sides with the nuts. For a sheet cake or Bundt cake, make half the frosting recipe and simply spread over top and around the sides.
- Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 week.