How can you tell if someone isn’t from the South? They read the name of this recipe and ask, “What is a hummingbird cake?” Well, hummingbird cake is an incredibly dense and moist layer cake with banana, pineapple, and warm spices, covered with swirls of rich cream cheese frosting and crunchy toasted pecans on top. And if you’ve never had it — but you’re a fan of banana cake, pineapple upside-down cake, or carrot cake — you’re going to be thoroughly charmed by our easier-than-you’d-expect hummingbird cake recipe.
Hummingbird cake reigns supreme over the dessert table at Southern get-togethers, but to locate this recipe’s origins, you actually have to go a bit farther south — to Jamaica. In the late ’70s, the Jamaican Tourist Board attempted to entice more American vacationers to the island by releasing press kits highlighting classic Jamaican recipes. One of them was a delicious “hummingbird cake”, named in honor of Jamaica’s national bird, the swallow-tailed hummingbird. (Or, as it’s known on the island, the doctor bird — which is why you’ll also find recipes calling this a doctor bird cake.) Southern Living Magazine printed the recipe in 1978, and in the last 40 years it’s become their most requested recipe of all time.
But why is it really called a hummingbird cake? The story behind the name is about as nuanced as the cake’s fruity, spiced, and tropical flavor. Maybe it’s because the cake is as sweet as the nectar that hummingbirds drink. Maybe it’s because anyone who takes a bite will positively hum with joy. Maybe it’s because people make a beeline to this pineapple banana cake as quickly as hummingbirds flock to the feeder. Whatever the real story is, hummingbird cake has become a staple of Southern celebrations.
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs, beaten
1½ cups sugar
1⅓ cups vegetable oil
¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups very ripe banana, mashed (about 4 medium bananas or 16 ounces)
1 (8 oz) can crushed pineapple (or fresh chopped pineapple)