Though it’s beloved in the South, hummingbird cake wasn’t something I grew up eating. In fact, I never even had a slice until about 10 years ago. This classic dessert is typically baked as an iced layer cake, but I make a bundt version, thanks to Sharon, my friend who introduced me to it at an unforgettable luncheon on the bay.
While Sharon has shared many of her recipes with me over the years, this cake was one of the very first. Food is so much a part of my memories. Smells and tastes instantly take me back in time to specific people, places and moments in my life. This cake transports me back to one of my most perfect memories — the day Sharon hosted a birthday party for our friend, Dawn.
The rainstorm from the wee hours of the morning had cleared the way for what was to be an absolutely idyllic spring afternoon with blue sky and sunshine as far as the eye could see. Sharon had prepared a scrumptious seasonal meal of steamed shrimp, fresh sugar snaps and the thinnest asparagus I’d ever seen. She opened a cold, crisp bottle of white wine — and the aroma of this beautiful cake met us when we walked into her kitchen.
Sharon lives on Perdido Bay, which isn’t far from my place. It’s quite a lovely spot, and Sharon is lovelier still, both inside and out. She creates a casual elegance and ease of being so effortless — which makes her guests feel right at home, yet utterly spoiled.
The quintessential Southern hostess is Sharon, who is truly the last of her kind. Without an air of pretension, her table is set with polished silver. Yes, you read that correctly: polished silver. Everything is homemade, there are always fresh-cut flowers (most of which come from Sharon’s own yard) and her home is immaculate without feeling unlived-in or sterile.
The loveliness of Sharon’s place begins as soon as you turn off the main road onto the long driveway that winds through to her house. Once there, you’re immediately charmed by the peaceful beauty of the grounds. The house itself has deep, inviting porches, beautiful pine columns and gorgeous brickwork. Lady Banks roses grow up the main staircase and all along the walkway that traverses back to the main entry door. Big, bushy, white George Taber azaleas, as well as old, long-established hydrangea bushes, help create cozy spots for hammocks and chairs. It’s simply enchanting.
Once inside, you have uninterrupted views of the bay from every room in the house. In front, facing the water, the grounds are a bird’s paradise with lots of greenery and flowering plants in tidy beds. Sharon even has a once-injured-but-now-healed great blue heron, who’s practically a pet at this point and shows up every afternoon for the hot dogs she buys just for him.
On this particular day, the three of us friends spent all afternoon laughing, relaxing and sitting outside in the sun. We dragged out our luncheon/birthday party for three as long as we could. Then we decided to end our little celebration by having dessert down on the dock so that we could watch the pelicans dive for fish and listen to the water lap at the shore. The cake was outstanding, superbly moist from the fruit and nicely textured from both the fruit and the chopped pecans. It was perfect for the day and for the season.
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Every time I eat this cake, I’m reminded of that magical moment that provided such a respite from all of our cares and concerns. Each of us had our own “stressors of the moment,” but our friend, the birthday girl, had truly been through a lot. In the span of a few months, she lost her husband to cancer, as well as nearly lost her son in an accident from which he suffered a traumatic brain injury. I think it was the first day she laughed in a very long time. Food and friendship can certainly help heal the soul.
Once you try it, I bet this hummingbird cake becomes a part of your seasonal rotation. I make it nearly every spring, always grateful for that beautiful day I tasted it for the first time. I’m left feeling thankful for the friends and family I have with whom I regularly get to share good food and drink.
Cheers to the season! Cheers to friendship, family and the healing power of laughter.
Bananas and pineapple
You need very ripe to overripe bananas. They should be easy to mash with a fork.
You’ll probably be disappointed if you decide to use a fresh pineapple and its juice for this cake. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it would be simpler to reach for a can.
Use crushed pineapple, but don’t drain the juice off like I accidentally did the first time I made this recipe — you use the juice in the cake.
Sugar and flour
It’s common for me to substitute some of the sugar for Swerve, which is the best brand of erythritol sweeter I know and an easy 1:1 substitute for sugar. Swerve also makes a powdered variety that can be used in the glaze, if you choose.
This cake can handle being made gluten-free or with an alternative flour. You must make sure, however, that the flour you choose is blended with what’s required for it be used like all-purpose flour. Any of the gluten-free baking blends work fine; I frequently use King Arthur brand.
Having said that, my mom would tell you to disregard all of the above and use Martha White flour and real sugar. Period.
Cream cheese and milk
If you struggle with lactose, Green Valley makes a lactose-free cream cheese that I’ve used many times. I’ve also used an alternative dairy cream cheese that works for the glaze. (One problem is the color doesn’t turn out as appealing and light, but you can definitely use it.) The only thing I would caution against is using a fat-free or reduced-fat variety of cream cheese. Other than that, any type of milk or cream, dairy or non-dairy should work just fine.
Recipe: Hummingbird Bundt Cake
- 1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped, toasted and divided
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 3/4 to 2 cups mashed banana (2 cups at most, 1 3/4 at least)
- 1 8 oz. can crushed pineapple, undrained
- 3/4 vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 oz. cream cheese
- 2 cups sifted powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 tablespoons milk or cream, plus extra (You might need a bit more.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Toast the pecans until fragrant and crispy but not scorched, 5-8 minutes.
Oil and flour a bundt pan, tapping out any extra flour, and set aside.
After the pecans are toasted, sprinkle 2/3 into the prepared bundt pan.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, soda, cinnamon and salt.
In a second bowl, combine the eggs, bananas, pineapple and its juice, oil and vanilla.
Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture. Stir until just combined and the dry ingredients are uniformly moist.
Pour or spoon the batter on top of the pecans in the bundt pan. Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove it and allow it to completely cool on the rack.
Combine and stir all of the ingredients for the glaze until well blended. Use additional milk or cream if necessary to get the desired consistency. (You should be able to pour it over the cake with the help of a rubber spatula.)
Once the cake is cool, pour the glaze over the cake and top it with the remaining toasted pecans.
I use either cold-pressed, organic sunflower seed oil or avocado oil. They’re both nice and neutral tasting, but any oil of your choosing should work fine for this cake. I wouldn’t recommend olive oil, however, as it would impart additional flavor.
The amount of mashed banana I suggest isn’t exactly exact. I’ve found that if I have a bit of extra banana after reaching the 1 3/4 cup mark, adding the remainder of it works out just fine. No need to waste.
If I have cream on hand and use it for the cream cheese glaze, I often have to add a bit of water in order to get the consistency to something more pourable. What you want is a thick glaze or a thin icing if that makes sense.
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