For the love of cake

Growing up, for every birthday and every holiday, we had (still do!) something sweet–sometimes many, many sweet things and always cake. Mostly, the sweets were made by my mom, who stayed up all night or many nights in a row mixing, baking, and, when there was cake, decorating. One birthday, I had a Barbie doll cake with white and pink icing–you know, the one where Barbie is dressed in a fancy ballgown made of cake and icing? I’m pretty sure I had that one more than once because I loved Barbie and all of her friends. For my 16th birthday, I had a three-tiered cake decorated with fresh roses; just about every birthday cake was made by mom. Sadly, I don’t have pictures of these lovely handmade creations but, my mom’s love of baking and creating delicious things for the people she loved was firmly passed on to me.

The expectation of something sweet for every celebration, especially birthdays, and the joy of sharing that with family and friends is something I hold dear to my heart. During graduate school, I spent hours and hours baking  for Christmas for my lab mates or making random cakes to share. Then, during my post-doctoral fellowship, a lab mate and I became the lab bakers; we took turns making cupcakes for each person in our lab for their birthdays and half-birthdays! We let the birthday boy or girl pick a flavor combination and we figured out how to make it work. There was a constant stream of cake that kept the lab fueled for science! When Skip and I started dating, Valentine’s day was chocolate chip cookies and, for his birthday, cupcakes. One year was a lemon cupcake with a lemon curd filling and citrus cream cheese frosting and the next year was a ‘graham-hattan’, a graham cake with all the fixings of a Manhattan, including a sweet vermouth cream filling, brandied cherry, and a bourbon-orange cream cheese frosting. Skip doesn’t have the same love of cake that I do, but cream cheese frosting…well, that’s a love we share. For Skip, cake is merely a vehicle for cream cheese frosting.

One of his favorite cream cheese vehicles is the hummingbird cake. Now, I don’t know when he first had this cake, maybe from a local cupcake bakery, but, my Uncle Sammie Lee baked this cake for Easter more than once. The hummingbird cake is a layer cake with pineapple, bananas, spices, pecans, and cream cheese frosting that is a Southern tradition (though the cake likely originated in Jamaica in 1960s). The first printed version of a recipe for the hummingbird cake in the U.S. appeared in Southern Living magazine in late 1970s, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins from North Carolina; it remains the magazine’s most requested recipe.  This decadent cake is one of my favorites–right up there with red velvet cake. So, after we got home from our Kentucky/Tennessee trip last weekend, as a late birthday surprise for Skip, I made a us a humming bird cake.


Hummingbird Cake
A slightly modified version of Mrs. Wiggins’ original recipe in Southern Living


3 C (408 g) All-Purpose flour
2 C (418 g) Granulated sugar
1 tsp (5 g) Baking soda
1 tsp (4 g) Salt
1 tsp (1.5 g) Ground cinnamon
1 Large vanilla bean*
1/2 oz (13 g) Bourbon (optional)*
3 Large eggs (171 g), warmed to room temperature
1 1/4 C (261 g) Vegetable oil
~2 C Banana (4-6 medium to large bananas; I used 6, equal to 448 g)
8 oz (228 g) Crushed pineapple
1 C (108 g) Roasted pecan halves, roughly chopped

Cream Cheese Frosting

3 Packages (678 g) Cream Cheese
1/2 C (113 g) Butter, warmed to room temperature & cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/8 tsp Salt
1/8 tsp Ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp Orange zest (from about 1/2 a large orange)
2 2/3 C (374 g) Powdered sugar
1 Tbsp Bourbon (optional)*


For the Cake:

  • Preheat oven to 350 °F.
  • Grease 3 8-inch (or 9-inch) round cake pans with butter. Line the bottom of each pan with with parchment paper; butter the parchment. Then, flour each pan. Set aside.
  • Scrape the beans from the vanilla bean pod; add the beans to the granulated sugar. Use your fingers to rub the beans into the sugar.
  • Combine the first 5 ingredients together in a large bowl; whisk to combine.
  • Add the sugar-vanilla bean mixture; whisk.
  • Mix together the eggs and vegetable oil and stir into the dry ingredients; mix just till combined.
  • Add pineapple, bananas, bourbon (if using), and pecans; stir until just combined.
  • Divide batter among the three prepared pans.
  • Bake at 350 °C for 25-30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.
  • Cool cake layers in pans on wire racks 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks, and cool completely (about 1 hour).

For the Frosting:

  • Using an electric mixer, mix the three packages of cream cheese on medium high until smooth and creamy.
  • Add the butter, a couple of pieces at a time, and mix well between additions.
  • Stir in the salt, cinnamon, zest, and bourbon, if using.
  • Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time on low speed. Adjust the sweetness to your liking by adding more or less powdered sugar.

To assemble the cake:

  • Place 1 cake layer on a serving platter.
  • Spread 1 cup Cream Cheese Frosting over cake layer. Top with second layer, and spread 1 cup frosting over cake layer. Top with third cake layer, and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting.
  • Try not to eat the whole cake in a day or two–this is best shared with friends!


  • The vanilla bean can be replaced with 1.5 tsp vanilla extract; just add the extract with the fruit. If you do use the vanilla bean, don’t discard the scraped pod—toss it into a cup or two of granulated sugar and let it sit for a week or two before using the sugar (but, just leave the pod in the sugar). This will give you a lovely, ready-to-use vanilla sugar to use for simple syrup, coffee, tea, or in baked goods! This is a staple in my house.
  • The bourbon in the frosting can be replaced with 2 tsp vanilla.
  • I used frozen bananas. I always end up with overripe, completely brown bananas and they end up in my freezer; so, I always have them on hand, or so it seems. Once thawed, they’re pretty mushy and don’t need to be chopped at all. But, if you use ripe non-frozen bananas, make sure to chop them into small chunks.

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