Hummingbird Cake: From Jamaica to the American South and beyond

It’s not often that a cake recipe stems from a tourist promotion, but that seems to be just the case with Hummingbird Cake. A cake rich in banana and pineapple with hearty pecans, all covered in sumptuous cream cheese icing, Hummingbird Cake isn’t your everyday bakery cake but something so much more.

So many people have commented on the name Hummingbird Cake and wondered “who named it that, anyway?” that I went in search of an explanation. I was thrilled to find a great little blog over at  toriavey.com. Tori researches and shares stories of unique recipes and their origins, like this gem of a cake.

The national bird of Jamaica is the doctor bird, a colorful member of the hummingbird family. It’s so named because the probing of the bird at flower blossoms reminded people of the probing and prodding we all get at the doctor’s office.

When Air Jamaica was formed in 1968, their tourism information included recipes from the island converted for use in the American kitchen, including their beloved Doctor Bird Cake. These cakes are so sweet and fruity it’s claimed they even draw hummingbirds to the table.

Doctor Bird Cake became Doctor Byrd Cake in the Southern U.S., where Byrd was a popular family name, and from there became the more generic Hummingbird Cake we know today.

I love the fact that this cake is also known as Granny Cake and Don’t Last Cake. Believe me, that’s exactly what we experienced last time we served this cake in our test kitchen: it went from full three-layer cake to empty platter in 15 minutes flat. A record Granny could be proud of!

There are a few secrets to making this outstanding cake the best it can be, and we’re happy to share those with you.

Bump up the flavor.

Toasting nuts brings out depth of flavor as their natural oils roast. You can toast them in the oven as you preheat it for the cake; or you can toast them in a dry skillet on the stove top. The downside is that these oils can burn quickly, so whichever method you choose don’t leave nuts unattended.  Watch them closely and remove them from the heat as soon as they become fragrant, and you’ll be in the clear.

How to make Hummingbird Cake via @kingarthurflour

In the oven this should take about 5 to 7 minutes at 350°F; on the stove top over medium heat it’ll be slightly longer. Don’t be tempted to increase the heat to speed up the process; you’ll end up sitting sadly in a smoky kitchen with no pecans for your cake.

How to make Hummingbird Cake via @kingarthurflour

Use room temperature ingredients.

Next, plan ahead and take the butter and cream cheese for your icing out of the refrigerator well ahead of time. Cold cream cheese makes for lumpy icing with unpleasant texture, as small pieces of cream cheese will remain in the otherwise smooth icing.

How to make hummingbird cake via @kingarthurflour

Pay attention to how the batter comes together.

Bringing the batter together in a particular order definitely makes a difference. This cake is oil -and egg-based, so it’s rich and moist like carrot cake as opposed to light and spongy like butter cake.

It’s important to emulsify the eggs and oil for a couple of minutes, then add the banana and dry ingredients before the tasty bits and pieces. Let’s take a closer look at how to make batter the correct way.

How to make hummingbird cake via @kingarthurflour

It’s all about method.

Hummingbird Cake not only has banana for moisture and flavor, but coconut, canned pineapple, nuts, and dried pineapple as well – about 60 ounces total, in fact. So, why not just dump it all together with the flour and stir it around?

For help in explaining this, I turned to King Arthur Flour’s pastry chef and test kitchen guru, Frank. Here’s how he talked me through it.

By creating batter first with eggs, oil and flour, you create a sturdy base into which you can stir your inclusions (fancy term for added bits), a batter in which they’ll be well supported. If you just try to stir flour into a mixture thick with inclusions, you end up with pockets of flour that never get incorporated – and uneven batter.

Have you ever had a piece of carrot cake where the raisins or carrots sported clumps of flour? That’s from adding the bits and pieces first, and then trying to work the flour in and around them to form your batter.

Baking science – it’s fascinating! How to make hummingbird cake via @kingarthurflour

Let’s talk texture.

I weighed the batter for this cake and it was up in the 8-pound range. Talk about chock full o’ nuts!

The self-rising flour yields a tender crumb, but each bite is still packed with tasty add-ins. If you’re looking for a fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth cake, this might not be your first choice; but it’s tops for being rich and moist.

Now let’s talk a bit about self-rising flour. It’s the only flour we sell that includes baking powder and salt in the base of a low-protein flour. If you have to use all-purpose flour that doesn’t contain baking powder and salt, please be sure you add these to your recipe.

The basic formula for self-rising flour is 1 cup King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose flour + 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon salt. Your cake texture will be somewhat denser/less soft due to the higher protein level in the all-purpose flour.

One thing I adore about these cakes is their even bake. No doming; just flat, smooth, and even in texture. You shouldn’t need to trim the layers before creating your sky-high stack.

How to make hummingbird cake via @kingarthurflour

The icing on the (Hummingbird) cake.

Remember how you brought your cream cheese and butter to room temperature first? A silky-smooth icing is your well-deserved reward. The butter and cream cheese will easily blend with the confectioners’ sugar, leaving no lumps, just velvety soft swirls.

More step-by-step photos on cream cheese icing can be found on our Kitchen Sink Carrot Cake blog post.

How to make hummingbird cake via @kingarthurflour

A well-deserved reward.

We’ve delved together into the mysteries of Hummingbird Cake and come out the other side with layers of sweet knowledge. For me, I think a slice of Doctor Bird Cake is just what the doctor ordered after all of our studies.

Please bake, rate, and review our recipe for Hummingbird Cake.

Print just the recipe.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour’s baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Kalisa

    The only issue I have with Hummingbird Cake is when people think it is interchangeable with Carrot Cake. Keep your pineapple and coconut nonsense out of my carrot-y goodness! 🙂

    That being said, this is a lovely cake. I like icing cakes but leaving their sides un-iced so you can see the pretty cake underneath.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      Too funny! I’m not a pineapple-in-carrot-cake gal either, but MUST have the raisins. ~ MJ

  2. waikikirie

    I am of the no pineapple/coconut-in-my-carrot cake group too! Raisins, I have no feelings about. Think it depends on the cake. I thought the cake was made in a spring form pan…the sides/shape is perfect. Now you’ve got me wanting either this recipe for carrot cake…….Thanks a lot…..teehee

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      I love the way you put it “I have no feelings about it”. 🙂 I’m on a gelato kick this weekend, but maybe I’ll sneak in some cake soon. ~ MJ

  3. Joanna

    I am going to make this tomorrow. Loved the step by step instructions. I learned a lot. Looks wonderful. Thank you for such a yummy recipe!!!

    Reply
  4. Tom Canby

    Will be making this for our annual July 4th party!!! Of course, I’ll have to do a test run before then….purely for science sakes. 🙂 LOL.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      One of the greatest joys of being a baker is the “duty” of taste testing or performing some “quality control experiments,” if you will. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. Kelly

    I never knew the history of the Hummingbird cake! I’ll have to make one soon – in honor of the now defunct Air Jamaica.

    Reply
  6. Dorette Kanengieter

    Here in the Midwest I was always told it was called Hummingbird Cake because when people ate some the said “m-m-m-m-m-m”! Had lost my original recipe….thanks for this one.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Dorette, I love your explanation for the name of the Hummingbird Cake! I’m sure this recipe will live up to its name! Barb@KAF

  7. Jennifer Kemmer

    I was so happy to see the recipe for this cake this morning. I had a slice at a little café several years ago and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. I was going to skip my book club meeting next week, but I may go just so I can bring this for the treat. So looking forward to trying this recipe. The history of the cake is interesting, too.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Jennifer, so glad you found this recipe! I’m sure your book club will be happy too! Barb@KAF

  8. Karen Madia

    If you are not using self-rising flour, and all-purpose flour makes it too dense, could you use cake flour or a combo of cake flour and all-purpose flour instead?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Karen, I think it would be fine to use cake flour for some or all of the flour amount, as long as you add the necessary baking powder and salt. Barb@KAF

    2. Karen Madia

      Tried the cake using KA cake flour and added baking powder and salt. Followed the recipe otherwise and it came out fabulous!. Even had a slight crumb to it, much to my surprise. Family says it is definitely a keeper.

    3. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the cake. I’ve been really wanting just one.more.piece! ~ MJ

    1. Sherri D

      Thanks for that! I’m going to make this for a family reunion in July, so I’m crossing my fingers after reading the varying reviews.

  9. V Askew

    I have two other hummingbird recipes but am going to try this one. I bak a lot for the church and hospital and I believe they will love this, especially the doctors and nurses….

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I am sorry, but we have not developed a G-F version. I have taken a quick look online and found one from the site, Craftsy. Check it out and let us know if you try it! Elisabeth@KAF

  10. Laurie Mannino

    While this sounds delicious, I absolutely hate banana. Would this work using applesauce instead? or something else?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      There are 3 bananas in this recipe which is not insignificant. Applesauce may be used for some of the banana but not all. It will add back too much moisture. I have heard pumpkin puree is a suitable substitute but you will need to add back some sweetness to the recipe since pumpkin is pretty mild. You will have to do some experimenting, Laurie! Elisabeth@KAF

  11. Janna McGowan

    The picture shows the cake with lovely alternating layers of cake and frosting visible, but the instructions don’t talk about how to do that. Are you building it in a springform pan with acetate sheets?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      Hi Janna,
      The cake was layered, with the icing just barely over the edge and then a warm spatula was run around the cake, smoothing the icing into the gaps. Hope this helps! ~ MJ

  12. Ida Johnson

    I was so fascinated by the cake photo, ingredient list, & cake description that I made this cake about 3 weeks ago without the benefit of your “secrets”. The finished product was lovely; I spread my pecans over the entire top surface. My brother loved the taste & texture. My sister said she & her kids loved it. However, I didn’t like it. The layers were so dense & moist & flat (just as you describe in your secrets) that I thought the cake had fallen or the recipe might have had misprints re the amount of flour or bananas. I weighed my ingredients. The icing was delicious. I might bake this again using your prep tips. Also, I think a regular banana cake with this icing & pecans could be spectacular. Got any recipes for a banana cake?

    Reply
  13. "stewartreb@me.com"

    I appreciate the effort someone at KAF took to track down the information surrounding this beautiful and delicious cake. My mother, who is now deceased, first received this recipe from a friend when it was called, “Dr. Bird” cake. My mother was the most awesome baker in our small home community and many people paid her to bake for them, which she did as a side business to help subsidize my father’s income. She also loved to make dipped candies for the holidays. I have inherited her love for baking and trying new recipes, which has led me to the King Arthur Website. I am very much appreciative that you post recipes for anyone who visits the KAF website, regardless if they make a purchase. I do make purchases since I have recently found your site via a friend and have already earned and spent a $10.00 “Baker’s Bucks Certificate!” This time, I will be making your doggie treats for our Yorkie! I am sure he will love them just as I love all the goodies you offer for sale!

    Thanks Again for the Information on the “Dr. Bird”, “Hummingbird”, “Granny Cake” or “Don’t Last Cake”! This is great trivia for a die-hard baker!

    Rebecca Stewart

    Reply
  14. Christina Tenney

    Saw this Hummingbird cake recipe in the catalog and was excited to try it. I like banana bread, carrot cake and this seems to be a nice cross of the two.
    Today is my birthday and I made it for me to share with my family. It baked up beautifully! Nice even rise of the layers, And the house smelled so delicious. Can’t wait to cut into it. Thank you KAF.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Anna, in our posts you can find the link to the recipe highlighted under the title picture. Here’s the link you’re looking for. Barb@KAF

  15. Mary Bellopede

    I would love to bring this cake into work but a layer cake would not work, can you make this into a pan cake, like 13 by 9 or somewhat in that bracket?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      A 13 X 9 pan will hold a recipe that calls for 3 8″ round pans or 2 9″ round pans. We fear that making this whole recipe in one 13 X 9 pan may be a recipe for baking disaster. To avoid that, consider filling the 13 X 9 pan 1/2 to 2/3 full and baking the rest of the batter as cupcakes. Happy Baking for your lucky co-workers. Irene@KAF

    2. Kate

      This was the first time I attempted to make H-Cake using this recipe. I tried the recipe as cupcakes having added the appropriate amount of baking powder and salt to KA All-Purpose flour. The cupcakes did not rise. But I believe they will make great hockey pucks for practice for the kids hockey team! Oh well!

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      Kate, when substituting the AP flour for the self-rising flour you’ll also need to add more liquid to the recipe because the higher protein AP flour will absorb more liquid. Try adding 1 tablespoon extra liquid per each cup of AP flour substituted. You’ll also want to be careful how you measure your flour. When measuring flour by volume, we recommend this method. For more help troubleshooting this recipe, please give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-2253(BAKE). Barb@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Your best Hummingbird banana sub may be to make a recipe for kitchen sink carrot cake . That tasty cake features pineapple, coconut, walnuts or pecans, carrots and spices so it may meet your preference for a tropical yet banana-less cake. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

  16. Fred Nation

    Have made a similar recipe. This is such a heavy cake. Would it help to put parchment paper in pans for better release?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Yes! Grease the pans, and then add a round of parchment for easy cooled cake release and then assembly. Happy baking! Irene@KAF

  17. Adrienne C

    I saw this recipe and decided to make it for a dessert auction fundraiser. It was the very first time I made it and found it so incredibly easy to make. The cake was nice and moist and cooked beautifully. It didn’t have a strong banana and/or pineapple flavor but it certainly helped with the moistness of the cake. The frosting recipe was lovely… Smooth and not too sweet, a perfect compliment to the cake. It was a hit! Everyone loved it and wants me to make it for an upcoming soccer tournament but I think for this, I’m going to try to make it in a cupcake version.

    Reply
  18. Sharon Whitaker

    Haven’t tried Humming Bird Cake yet, sound good. I do prefer Pineapple in Carrot cake or it is more like a spice cake and not as moist and I prefer to use dates not raisins a better flavor.

    Reply

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