Why Does Everyone Love Hummingbird Cake?

How could you not fall for a tall, thickly-frosted cake, especially when its layers are a luscious combination of banana, pineapple, pecan, and coconut?

coconut sugar hummingbird cake
Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

What's the story behind the beloved banana-pineapple-pecan-coconut cake that's almost as popular as carrot cake (and even more delicious)? As you might have noticed last time you enjoyed a piece of hummingbird cake, there are no birds involved, not even feathers needed for decoration. We don't know for sure but have been told that there's a hum, much like that of the tiny bird, that comes from a contented cake eater as they devour a slice.

The Delicious History of the Hummingbird Cake

There are in fact two strands to the origin story of hummingbird cake, and neither goes back far back in time. That's because hummingbird cake is a relatively recent invention. One thread gives credit to the Jamaican Tourist Board, who promoted a banana-pineapple-coconut cake called doctor bird cake, after a Jamaican hummingbird in 1968.

Hummingbird cake, the frosted layered confection we adore, was first promoted in Southern Living in 1978. The recipe was credited to Mrs L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, though it's said that similar cakes had already appeared in community cookbooks and at county fairs across the south. Early versions touted the recipe as a way to use up bananas but really, that's what banana bread is for.

What's in a Hummingbird Cake?

Hummingbird cake is showy and delicious, but not difficult to make. It's an oil cake, which means there's no butter needed. The oil, along with the pineapple and banana in the batter, make it an ultra-moist, tender cake that keeps well. Coconut adds to the rich, sweet flavors while the chopped walnuts or pecans in the batter add a crunchy contrast. Traditionally a layer cake, this popular flavor combination has been seen in cupcake form and as a Bundt. Because the cake is made with pineapple, banana, coconut, and nuts, no one flavor dominates; instead there's an overall sweetness that is best offset by a rich, fluffy Cream-Cheese Frosting.

Frosting fills the layers and coats the top and sides of the cake and is often applied with swoops and swirls—texture is everything here. The finishing touch? Dried Pineapple Flowers or Candied Pineapple would be lovely. Other versions coat the sides of the cake in chopped toasted pecans or simply sprinkle the frosting with coconut flakes.

Why Is Hummingbird Cake Considered a Cousin of Carrot Cake?

There's no carrot in the recipe, but much like carrot cake, hummingbird cake is a very moist, dense, sweet cake that's hard to resist. Our latest recipe is a hybrid of carrot cake and hummingbird cake. We stirred shredded coconut and puréed pineapple into our batter and used oil, not butter, to get a rich crumb and featherweight texture. Then we coated the classic frosting with chopped pecans and topped it with a nest of candied carrot ribbons.

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