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VOL. 36 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2012

Hummingbird cake an unexpected treat

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The other day, as I was trying to find something interesting to write about, I came across hummingbird cake. Now you may have heard of this before, and maybe even had some, but for me – and in all of my culinary “time” – this was a new one.

My first thought was, “Wha-a-a-t-t-t-t??? A cake made from hummingbirds? Those cute little critters I feed bright red syrup? No!” Then was it a cake made for hummingbirds? No again.

It is a cake made for people, but called hummingbird cake. Why? Don’t know, but it sure jogged my curiosity.

After a bit of research, I learned hummingbird cake has been around about as long as I have.

I found many different explanations, of course, none of them documented as true.

Jamaican Theory: The hummingbird, also known as the doctor-bird, is the Jamaican national bird. This particular type of hummingbird lives only in Jamaica. Foodtimeline.org states a recipe for doctor-bird cake appeared in the Jamaican Daily Gleaner in March 1969.

Southern Living magazine is generally credited with the first reference to Hummingbird Cake. It published the recipe, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, N.C., in its February 1978 issue.

As for the name, the hummingbird is drawn to intensely sweet flowers and syrups. Incredibly, they are able to assess the amount of sugar in the nectar they eat. They reject flower types that produce nectar less than 12 percent sugar and prefer those whose sugar content is around 25 percent.

One theory is that since this cake is sweet, and so delicious, it makes you hum with happiness when you’re eating it. Also, Foodtimeline.org notes that maybe it was named after the way the cake is eaten quickly, similar to the eating pattern of those tiny energetic fliers.

I buy that. It is a sweet cake, and one that doesn’t stay around long, especially if you have a hot cup of coffee sitting beside it.

Regardless, it’s my recipe for this week. It’s perfect for those after Thanksgiving “eat till I bust” blues, and it would make a wonderful Christmas dinner dessert.

While I was perusing information about hummingbird cake, I came across other interesting facts about the history of cakes. Here are a few:

One article stated cake dates back to ancient times, although it was very different from what we eat today.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word “cake” back to the 13th century. It’s a derivation of “kaka,” an Old Norse word. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread.

According to food historians, the precursors of modern cakes (the round ones) were first baked in Europe sometime in the mid-17th century due to advances in technology for ovens, the manufacturing of food molds and the discovery of refined sugar. At that time, cake hoops, round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays, were used. They could be made of metal, wood or paper.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that cake, as we know it today, made with extra-refined white flour and baking powder instead of yeast, popped up. Wouldn’t our great-grandmothers have just had a heyday with Duncan-Hines or Betty Crocker?

Even more advanced is the “go to the corner market and buy it already made” technology. Lovin’ that!

OK, that’s all I have. Your cake appetite should be whetted and you should be ready to bake. That’s what I’m going to do. Honestly. I doubt I’m going to find a Hummingbird Cake anywhere, so I’m going to make one myself. Enjoy.

Hummingbird Cake

Cake

3 cups of all-purpose flour

2 cups of granulated sugar

1 teaspoon of baking soda

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of salt

2 cups of ripe bananas, chopped

1 cup of crushed pineapple, drained

1 cup of vegetable oil

3 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

1 cup of pecans, finely chopped

Icing

8 ozs. of cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup of unsalted butter, softened

4 1/2 cups of confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Position the racks in the center and bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter two 9-inch round cake pans, sprinkle them evenly with flour and then tap out the excess flour.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a bowl. In another bowl, using a spoon, stir the bananas, pineapple, oil, eggs and vanilla until combined. Pour that into the dry mixture and fold it together with a large spatula just until smooth. Do not beat. Fold in the pecans. Spread evenly in the pans.

Bake until the cakes spring back when pressed in the center, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the cakes to wire racks and cool.

To make icing, using an electric mixer on high, blend the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until combined. On low speed, gradually beat in the sugar, and then add the vanilla to make a smooth icing. Place a layer of the cake, upside down on a serving platter. Spread about 2/3 cup of the icing across it. Top that layer of cake with the second layer, right side up. Spread the remaining icing over the top and sides of the entire cake. The cake can be prepared up to one day ahead and stored, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Let it stand at room temperature for one hour before serving.

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