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Just What Is Hummingbird Cake?

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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A tropical tango of banana and pineapple, enough sugar to sweeten a pitcher of tea, a wee bit of flour spiked with salt, baking soda and spices, chopped pecans, a scandalous amount of oil and a few eggs to hold it all together - this is the stuff drool-worthy cake dreams are made of. And if you think the batter sounds yummy, just try resisting a scrupulous bowl licking after the cream cheese frosting is slathered on.

Such are the wonders of the Hummingbird Cake, one of the most decadent desserts of all time. This ultra-moist, triple-layered confection is an overwhelming people-pleaser and time-honored South Carolina tradition. While some Southern bakers reserve it for Christmas and special occasions, others show less restraint, serving up rich slices after Sunday dinner or even - gasp! - for breakfast. (Nuts, eggs, fruit - nutritious, right?)

So, let's address the hovering question. Just where do hummingbirds fit in? The answer doesn't lie in a song of sixpence or any other nursery rhyme, but in culinary roots that extend South - far South. In the late 1960s, the Jamaicans were whipping up a cake called "Doctor Bird" - a reference to a colorful hummingbird native to that region. These cakes, chock full of banana and pineapple, were sweet, aromatic and irresistible - much like nectar is to those tiny hummingbirds.

Another angle points to the colorful plumage of the doctor bird, which was thought by some to resemble the golden streaks of the fruit in the cake's batter. Any way you slice it, it was a connotation that stuck. When the Jamaican tourism board presented recipes for the cake in promotional packets, the dessert took flight, particularly here in the South where the sweet tooth reigns supreme and our hummingbird feeders thrum with near-constant activity.

In the ensuing years, it was sometimes referred to as "Banana-Pineapple Cake" by US bakers. But more often than not, the dessert was cited as "Hummingbird Cake," a moniker that headed several recipes published in magazines and newspapers across the country during the 1970s. It wasn't until the recipe appeared in a 1978 issue of Southern Living that "Hummingbird Cake" became an official part of our culinary lexicon. The response by cooks in the South was rousing, with the cake quickly attaining regional signature status. To this day, it holds the distinction of being the most requested recipe in Southern Living history.

Doctor Bird, Banana-Pineapple or Hummingbird -- this storied cake has had many identities. There is, however, one name that has held constant throughout the decades, an apt handle repeated time and again by the frosting-lined lips of everyone lucky enough to get a slice.Simply Delicious.

Hummingbird Cake:

While you can find this dessert on restaurant menus across South Carolina, it's easy to make your own. There's nothing like the aroma of a Hummingbird Cake to put everyone in the holiday mood. Whether it's Christmas, a birthday or a family supper, turn any day into a celebration with this tried-and-true Southern Living recipe.


1 cup chopped pecans

Vegetable cooking spray

Parchment paper

3 cups all-purpose soft-wheat flour (such as White Lily)

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups chopped bananas (about 4 medium bananas)

1 (8-oz.) can crushed pineapple in juice


1. Preheat oven to 350°. Bake pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan 6 to 8 minutes or until toasted and fragrant, stirring halfway through.

2. Coat 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray. Line bottom of each pan with parchment paper; coat paper with cooking spray.

3. Whisk together flour and next 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Add eggs, oil, and vanilla, and stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in bananas, pineapple, and pecans. (Batter will be very thick, more like banana bread batter than cake batter.) Spoon batter into prepared pans.

4. Bake at 350° for 28 to 30 minutes. Cool in pans on a wire rack 10 minutes. Remove from pans to wire rack, and cool completely (about 30 minutes). Peel off and discard parchment paper.

5. Place 1 cake layer on a cake stand or serving plate. Top with one-fourth of frosting. Repeat procedure once. Top with remaining cake layer. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Garnish with pecans, if desired.

Cream Cheese Frosting


2 (8-oz.) packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted


1. Place first 3 ingredients in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric stand mixer, and beat at medium speed using the paddle attachment until smooth. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating at low speed until blended after each addition. Beat at medium-high speed 3 minutes or until light and fluffy.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.