Hummingbird cakes are popular across the American south, where it is served on multiple occasions to celebrate coming together, social gatherings that the pandemic has now quashed. Basically a banana-pineapple cake, there are many versions of this cake, and they are all very sweet. I halved the sugar in this recipe but it is still sweet enough to make your sweet tooth ache! This one is dotted with crushed almonds and decorated with white-chocolate cream-cheese frosting and a wonderfully flaky crunchy almond-brittle dust.
One of the surprising things about this cake is actually its name. Why is a banana-pineapple cake called a Hummingbird Cake? The story of its origins goes like this: In the 1970s, an anonymous Jamaican chef created a cake recipe called the Doctor Bird Cake for the Jamaica Tourist Board. The Doctor Bird, a type of hummingbird, is the national bird of Jamaica. The recipe was included in press kits that were sent to the US where the cake was embraced, renamed, and became a regional favourite. Ironically, back in Jamaica, the Hummingbird Cake, formerly the Doctor Bird Cake, never achieved the same degree of popularity and where it seems to have settled into obscurity.
I baked this hummingbird cake this weekend for my father’s virtual 94th birthday party on Zoom. I’m in Thailand, he’s in Canada, and an ocean and a pandemic separates us. It’s been many years since he was last in Jamaica so I thought it would be a nice idea to make this cake, for both the celebration and a virtual nostalgic homecoming, with a cake that rises to every occasion.
Makes 1 8-inch double-layer cake, each layer 1 1/2 inches high
Make the cake
200 ml olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
280g self-rising flour
140g superfine/caster sugar
350g very ripe medium bananas
180g pineapple chunks, tinned or fresh, crushed and drained
90g large eggs (beat 2 eggs and measure 90g)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Heat oven to 175˚C/350˚F. Grease two round 8-inch cake pans with olive oil and line bases with parchment. Set aside.
Sift flour and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Add sugar and a large pinch of salt.
Peel bananas and mash with a fork in a medium bowl. Drain and finely chop the pineapple. I also mashed the pineapple with a potato masher and discarded the juice. Add chopped pineapple to the mashed bananas along with oil, eggs, and vanilla. Mix until well-combined. Fold into the dry ingredients, mixing until smooth.
Finely chop the almonds with a mortar and pestle. Sift out the powder and gently fold the larger pieces into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake 30-35 minutes or until the cake is golden, and springs back when touched in the middle.
Run a sharp thin blade around the edge. Cool on a wire rack in the pan 10 minutes. Then turn cakes out and cool completely. Remove parchment.
Make the frosting
White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream (adapted from The Cake Bible)
At room temperature:
9 oz/225g white chocolate, chopped
12 oz/340g cream cheese
6 oz/170g unsalted butter
Zest of one lemon, use zester rather than a microplane grater, set aside for decorating top of cake
1 1/2 tablespoons/23g freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon rum, optional
Put chopped chocolate in a stainless steel or glass bowl set over the top of a medium pan filled with 2 inches simmering hot water. The water must not reach the bottom of the bowl. Stir chocolate occasionally until it begins to melt. Stir constantly until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
In a large mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in the cooled chocolate until well combined. Beat in the butter, lemon juice and rum, if using. Frosting can be stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. Thirty minutes before using, bring frosting to room temperature and re-beat it to bring it to a spreadable consistency. Any leftover frosting can be stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator or freezer for later use.
Make the brittle
Almond Brittle (adapted from Martha Stewart)
3/4 cup/150g sugar
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
6 tablespoons water
3/4 cup/97g whole almonds
1 tablespoon/14g unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Vegetable oil cooking spray
Special equipment: candy thermometer
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spray lightly with vegetable oil cooking spray. Set aside.
In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, and water. Stir to combine. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until sugar is dissolved. Uncover and reduce heat to medium, and continue cooking without stirring until the sugar mixture reaches 295˚F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.
Stir in almonds, butter, vanilla, and baking soda. Return to heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 300˚F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat. Pour mixture onto prepared baking sheet. Working quickly, spread mixture with an offset spatula into a thin layer. Set aside to cool and harden.
Cover the brittle with a thin kitchen towel to prevent shards from flying, and smash the brittle with the flat side of a meat hammer. Pick up brittle in parchment and pour into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse until it is the consistency of flaky sea salt. Sift to separate the powder from the flakes. Store separately. You’ll use the flakes for decorating the cake. Save the remainder of the dust for sprinkling on ice cream or for other projects.
Assemble the cake
2 cake layers
White chocolate cream cheese buttercream
Edible flowers, optional
1 ripe banana, thinly sliced, optional
Place one layer upside down on a cake stand with the flat side up. Tuck strips of waxed paper part way under the cake. Spread a thin layer of frosting on top. Nestle the sliced banana in the frosting then top with a bit more to cover. If not using the banana, spread about 1/2 cup frosting on the cake and smooth it out towards the edges. Put the second layer on top then frost the top and sides. I decided not to frost the sides. Sprinkle over the lemon zest and scatter with brittle dust flakes. Decorate with edible flowers, if desired.