Mystery and History in a Hummingbird Cake

black yellow and green small sized bird on red steel ornament
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I can still remember the first time I came across a recipe for Hummingbird Cake. I was in my early twenties at the time and tucked in the pages of Country Cakes by Bevelyn Blair was this odd, if not strange sounding, cake. I thought, “Why on earth would someone name a cake after a Hummingbird? Surely no one would put hummingbirds in a cake!” Well, I was young.

After scanning the ingredients, I was surprised by the mix of spice and tropical fruits. Somehow, that didn’t seem like a good mixture to my imagination and I never attempted to make the cake, even though it is considered a Southern classic.

Over twenty years later, and hopefully a little wiser, my mother’s impending birthday set me to thinking of something I could bake for her that would be unusual, and not just the bakes I was most familiar with. I had done a Red Velvet with her for my own birthday just two months earlier, so it seemed odd to make it again. Then it came to me, “How about a Hummingbird Cake? It might be just strange enough to be the best cake we have ever made.”

If anyone knows about my mother and I and our history of cake baking, then they also know every birthday cake ends up in the garbage can. It is as if the baking gods have it out for us when it comes to cakes and birthdays. Any other day of the year will result in a decent and quite tasty cake, everyday but for two out of the year. This time I was determined and the mysterious Hummingbird Cake would end our streak of bad luck!

I started reading through the indexes of my many recipe books and decided on the classic from Southern Living magazine. In the February 2018 edition, was the story of the cake as well as a recipe with many ingredients already in my cupboards. And definitely no hummingbirds!

The story in Southern Living credits Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, NC as having submitted the recipe for the magazine in 1978. It is the recipe we all know and follow as the true Hummingbird Cake. But as I was researching further into the cakes’ history, I found that not only can the roots of the recipe be traced back to Jamaica and part of a press package advertising Jamaica tourism, but the cake itself has many variations and is known by a different name.

low angle photography of coconut trees
Photo by Michelle Clement on Pexels.com

Doctor Bird Cake as it is called in Jamaica, began as a type of fluted, bundt cake without frosting. It was named after the national bird of Jamaica, the Red-Billed Streamertail Hummingbird. Jamaicans refer to the bird as Doctor Bird as its black crest and long black streamer like tail feather resemble the top hat and long, tailed coats worn by doctors of days long gone by. Another version states the bird is called the Doctor Bird as it lances flowers with its bill to savor the nectar. 

The bird is revered not only for its beauty, but for its history as well. The first people of Jamaica, the Arawaks, believed the bird possesed magical powers. They called it the ‘God bird,’ because they considered the bird to be the reincarnation of dead souls. The bird has been written about in many Jamaican folk songs, one with lyrics, “Doctor bird, a cunny bud, hard bud fe dead.” The translation reads, “It is a clever bird which cannot be easily killed.”

The recipe has changed only slightly since it was first introduced to American’s back in the 60’s, but one thing has remained and that is the cake’s moistness and delectable flavor. It is truly unique as the bird it was named for. Here is the recipe submitted by Mrs. Wiggins so long ago.

Hummingbird Cake

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Ingredients: 

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups granulated sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

3 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (I like Watkin’s brand)

1 (8oz.) can undrained crushed pineapple

2 cups chopped ripe bananas (the recipe calls for six, I found four to be enough)

1 cup chopped pecans, toasted

Vegetable shortening (for greasing the cake pans)

Frosting Ingredients:

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

1 cup salted butter or margarine, softened

2 (16oz.) pkg. powdered sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

Additional toasted pecans can be used to decorate cake after it is frosted.

Step 1. Preheat oven to 350*. Whisk together flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add eggs and oil. Stir until ingredients are moistened. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, bananas, and toasted pecans.

Step 2. Divide batter evenly among 3 well-greased (with the shortening) and floured 9- inch round cake pans.

Step 3. Bake in preheated oven until a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean; about 25-30 minutes. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and cool completely for about an hour.

Step 4. Bein the frosting will cakes are cooling. Mix together cream cheese and butter in a mixer or with hand-held electric mixer, until light and fluffy. Choose medium speed. Gradually add the powdered sugar and mix on low until frosting is smooth. Add the vanilla and mix at medium-high speed until frosting is fluffy; about 1-2 minutes.

Step 5. Assemble the cake by placing first cake layer on a plate or cake stand. Spread about one cup of the frosting over the cake layer. Continue with second and third layers, covering with frosting after each layer is added. Spread remaining frosting over the top and sides of assembled cake. Add additional toasted pecans if desired. Enjoy!

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It sounds like a lot of work goes into making this cake. But really, it doesn’t take all day and if you have baked a cake before, this cake will not stress you out. Just take it step-by-step. If you haven’t baked a cake before, my advice is the same. Just make sure to gather all your ingredients first. Make sure your cake pans are prepared while you wait for the oven to preheat. 

 

Author: ninaslilangel

Born in Georgia and raised in North Carolina, I inherited the baking bug like so many of us; through childhood memories and standing by my mother's side as she prepared our family meal. I began this blog as a way of sharing my love of Southern baking and its treasured heritage.

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