Wine & Food

    Credit: Samuel Pollen

    Recipe: Hummingbird cake

    21 June 2019

    I always assumed that the hummingbird’s cake derived its name from its unapologetic sweetness: a cake so singing with fruit juice and soft caramelly sugar that it charms the (humming)birds from the trees. The origins may in fact be more prosaic: originally called the Doctor Bird cake, it was named after the national symbol of Jamaica, a type of hummingbird, only found on the island, and it first came to fame outside of Jamaica thanks to a bit of a PR stunt. It was a marketing tool, really: one of a number of recipes exported by the Jamaican Tourist Board in 1968 in little press packs sent to the USA. But the cake itself and choice of name must have come from somewhere before the Jamaicans sent the banana-pineapple cake to the yanks, so I like to imagine that its nectar-sweetness had a part to play.

    I’m not sure how successful the mail-out was in terms of promoting Jamaican-US relations, but it was pretty effective in endearing the cake to the Americans. It has enjoyed particular popularity in the Southern states – states which share Jamaica’s taste for all things sweet and a generous scattering of pecans. The first recorded American recipe was in 1978 in Southern Living magazine (a Deep South cooking institution); since then it has become its most requested recipe.

    I’m a really big fan of this cake. If I’m making a cake for a friend, and they give me free reign, it’s likely they’re going to get a hummingbird cake, and it has become the de facto birthday cake in our household. Packed full of smushed ripe bananas and crushed pineapple, it is dense and moist, lightly spiced with cinnamon and stuffed with handfuls of chopped pecans. Thanks to the use of oil rather than butter, virtually no elbow grease is needed (always a bonus in my book): the ingredients are simply stirred together, then baked before – traditionally – being topped with cool, soft cream cheese icing.

    Hummingbird cake, Credit: Samuel Pollen

    Hummingbird cake

    Makes: 1 eight inch cake (serves 8)

    Takes: 10 minutes

    Bakes: 40 minutes

    400g crushed pineapple, darined

    2 bananas, very ripe

    200g vegetable oil

    250g light brown sugar

    3 eggs, lightly forked

    75g pecans, chopped

    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

    1 teaspoon fine salt

    250g self raising flour

    For the icing

    300g icing sugar, sifted

    100g unsalted butter, at room temperature

    125 g cream cheese, cold

    1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line the base of two 8 inch cake tins.
    2. Mash the bananas and stir through the crushed pineapple, mixing in the vegetable oil, eggs and sugar.
    3. Stir together the self-raising flour, salt and cinnamon. Stir this into the wet mixture until thoroughly combined, then fold through the pecans.
    4. Divide the mixture evenly between the two cake tins, and bake for 40 minutes, or until the sponge is risen and golden and, when pressed gently with a finger, springs back. Remove from the oven, set to one side for ten minutes, release the sponges from the tin, and leave to cool completely.
    5. Make the icing by creaming the butter and icing sugar together, and then folding in the cream cheese until smooth and thick – don’t over whip or it will become runny.
    6. Remove the greaseproof paper from the base of the cool cakes. Spoon half of the icing onto one of the sponges, place the other on top of it, and spoon the second half of the icing on top of that. If you’d like the icing to firm up a little, refrigerate the cake before you serve.