Classic Hummingbird Cake Recipe & History
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.
The idea of baking a layer cake from scratch might make even a true Southern belle feel faint, but our easy hummingbird cake recipe is pretty hard to mess up. Don’t cut corners and use boxed cake mix for this one, because packaged cake mix tends to be super light and fluffy, which means that all of that delicious tropical fruit you add to the cake batter will just sink to the bottom. You could always make this recipe even easier and just bake it as a sheet cake with frosting on top. (We haven’t tried it this way, but the volume of batter for three 8-inch cake pans generally converts to one 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Let us know if you try it!)
If you want to get wows with a classic hummingbird layer cake, though, here are some tips for foolproof frosting:
- Let the cake layers cool completely before you frost them, or the butter in the frosting will start to melt. You can speed up the cooling by wrapping each layer in plastic wrap and putting it in the fridge. (You can even make the layers ahead of time and frost the cake day-of.)
- Cake bosses swear by coating the cake first with a thin “crumb layer” of frosting, letting that set in the fridge for 10 – 15 minutes, and then covering the whole cake in a thicker layer of frosting. That way, there won’t be any visible crumbs stuck in the frosting. Whether you go to the effort or not depends on your level of perfectionism; if you don’t have time for a crumb coat, you can also just brush the top and sides of the cake with a pastry brush to get rid of loose crumbs — that’s what we did.
- As your cake layers bake in the oven, the tops will become slightly domed. Pros use a serrated knife to trim the domed tops off the (fully cooled) cakes, so that the layers stack evenly and there’s less risk of toppling. This is optional, because you can always just fill in the gaps between layers with more frosting. (And with our cream cheese frosting recipe, more frosting is always a good thing).
But remember, anyone on the receiving end of a homemade hummingbird cake is absolutely not going to care if it doesn’t look perfect. True to its name, people will be hovering around this cake like hummingbirds to flowers.
Makes 12 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
- 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)
- 2 cups toasted chopped pecans, divided
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
- 2 (8 oz) packages of cream cheese, softened
- ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
- 6 cups powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.
- Grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and baking soda.
- Add the eggs, sugar, vegetable oil, buttermilk, and vanilla extract, and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
- Stir in the mashed bananas, crushed pineapple, and one cup of chopped pecans, and stir just until evenly mixed.
- Divide the batter evenly between your three coated cake pans (about 22 ounces per pan). Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, and then remove them from the pans and transfer them to wire racks to cool completely.
- Make the cream cheese frosting: beat together the butter, cream cheese, and salt with a hand mixer until smooth and creamy. Gradually add in the powdered sugar on low speed, until it is all incorporated. Whip in the vanilla extract.
- Decorate the cake: if desired, use a serrated knife to trim off the rounded tops of each cake to make them level. (If you don’t want to do this, you can also just fill in the gaps with more frosting.) Place the first layer of cake on a serving plate or cake decorating turntable, and spread the top of the first layer with about ¼ of the frosting. Turn the second layer of cake upside-down (so that you have a nice flat surface for frosting), and place it on top of the first frosted cake layer. Frost it with about another ¼ of the frosting. Place the last cake layer, upside-down, on top of the second frosted cake layer. Cover the entire cake with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle the remaining chopped pecans over the top of the cake. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Some take this cake’s tropical flavors to the next level and make their hummingbird cake with coconut. If you grew up eating hummingbird cake, how do you like yours?