hummingbird cake with almond brittle dust

Hummingbird Cake (originally called the Doctor Bird cake 🇯🇲)with Almond Brittle Dust*
*No birds were harmed in making this cake!

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.

Hummingbird Cake

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

1/2-teaspoon cinnamon

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

40g almonds

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

Lemon zest

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.

shrimp with spicy green rice

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A Southeast Asian-flavored dish inspired by Venetian risi e bisi, an Italian rice with peas. To me, this dish is reminiscent of  khao tom, a Thai rice soup with meat or seafood, served with steamed rice in a broth. In Thai cooking, condiments are served on the side so you can make it as salty, sour, sweet or spicy as you like. Although this recipe recommends seasoning the dish in the kitchen, I have reserved some of the herb sauce for seasoning at the table. 

Shrimp with Spicy Green Rice (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 21 minutes

2-4 large cloves garlic
1-2 green Thai chilies, sliced with or without seeds, depending on your preference for heat
1 cup packed fresh cilantro, plus more for serving
3 tablespoons fresh ginger (4-inch piece), minced
1 cup fresh Thai basil leaves, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 cup veg oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 small leek, thinly sliced (2 cups)
3 cups chicken broth/stock preferably home made and low sodium
4 oz sugar snap peas, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup long-grain white rice (recommend: Thai jasmine rice)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails removed
Salt

For serving:
Herb sauce
Cilantro, chopped
Basil, chopped
Lime wedges

Special equipment: a medium-sized Dutch pot with a lid

Prepare all ingredients.

In a food processor, pulse garlic until finely chopped. Add 2 tablespoons ginger, chili, basil, cilantro, fish sauce, and sugar. Process until finely chopped. Add 1 tablespoon oil and 3 tablespoons water and process finely. You should have about 2/3 cup of sauce. Set aside

In the pot without the lid, heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil on medium-high heat. Add leeks and remaining 1 tablespoon ginger. Cook until leek is translucent, 3-4 minutes. Stir in rice and broth along with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover pot and simmer rice until it is very soft, 17-18 minutes. The texture will be soupy.

Add shrimp, simmer, stirring once or twice, until shrimp just turns pink, 1-2 minutes. Stir in peas and 2 tablespoons of the herb sauce. Taste for seasoning and heat. If you wish, add more sauce—it’s quite salty and you won’t need any additional salt. It’s better to be cautious and not add all the sauce to the pot, but reserve the remainder for spicing up individual plates at the table. Remove from heat and serve with more cilantro, basil, and lime wedges, as well as the remaining sauce. I found that the dish didn’t need any additional cilantro, basil, or lime so I left them out, and just served it with the remaining herb sauce.

white buttercake

John said, is this cake made with white butter? I said no, it’s a white buttercake, as in This is not a yellow buttercake. But in this light, it sure looks yellow, doesn’t it? From the first mouthful, this cake was heavenly. It’s so moist, tender, and has that wonderful smell of vanilla. So get a good vanilla, like a Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract.

This cake is good enough to eat without frosting. It’s also versatile enough to be the tiers in a wedding cake covered with an elegant fondant or a decadent buttercream. If it is going to be decorated, it should be made three days before serving. If wrapped well and refrigerated, it will stay fresh. To add moisture and flavor, you can brush the layers with a simple syrup. To make a simple syrup, boil a cup of sugar with a cup of water. I’m not sure if the cake recipe can be doubled for a tier wedding cake. I should think it could. As promised, here is Martha Stewart’s excellent recipe.

Yield Makes 6 cups batter

Martha Stewart’s White Buttercake

Ingredients

  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
  • 3 1/4 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising), plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 large egg whites, at room temperature

 Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the cake pans with butter (see below for pan sizes and batter amounts). Line with parchment paper; butter parchment, and dust with flour, tapping out any excess. Set aside.
  1. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. Stir the milk and vanilla to combine; set aside. Beat the butter in a mixer bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar in a steady stream; mix until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  1. Reduce the speed to low. Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the milk mixture in 2 additions, and beginning and ending with the flour. Mix just until combined.

Cook’s Tip: I know that’s confusing. Think of it this way: flour-milk-flour-milk-flour.

  1. In a clean mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites just until stiff peaks form.  Fold one-third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten. Gently fold in the remaining whites in two batches. Divide the batter among the prepared pans; smooth the tops with an offset spatula. Firmly tap the pans on a work surface to release any air bubbles.

Cook’s Tip: Instead of under-mixing the egg whites, I had a problem with over-mixing. I would say, stop whipping the egg whites when the whites start to look glossy and the tips bend over when the beaters are slowly raised.

  1. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the centers comes out clean and the tops are springy to the touch (see below for baking times). Let cool in the pans on wire racks for 15 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks. Remove the parchment; re-invert and cool completely.

Cook’s Note: I used an 8 inch springform pan. The sides were too high so the cake fell a bit in the middle. It took 50 minutes at 300˚F to bake. I reduced the temperature 50˚ because the pan was so deep.

Cook’s Note from Martha Stewart:

Approximate batter amounts and baking times for 3-inch-deep round pans: 6-inch layer: 3 cups batter, 30 minutes; 8-inch: 5 cups, 40 minutes; 10-inch: 8 cups, 1 hour 5 minutes; 12-inch: 11 cups, 1 hour 15 minutes.