Straight-From-the-70s Hummingbird Cake

Overhaed view of hummingbird cake
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Studded with pineapple chunks, bananas, crunchy pecans, and coated in a tangy cream cheese frosting, hummingbird cake is an opulent dessert that’s been a mainstay of Southern tables since the 1970s. Though hummingbird cake is an American classic, it hails from Jamaica and is also known as the Dr. Bird cake—its name is a nod to the island’s national bird, who locals refer to as Dr. Bird. Writing for Epicurious, Riaz Phillips notes that the cake gained popularity after the Jamaican Tourist Board distributed a recipe to local newspapers to promote the island’s local bananas and pineapples. 

“The cake itself is the height of mid 20th century post-colonial tropical flair,” Phillips writes. “Bananas and pineapples are blended into a sponge that’s enhanced with spices like vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon—ingredients that are almost an afterthought today, but were still relatively novel at the time.” The recipe made its way to America, where some home cooks nicknamed it “The Cake That Won’t Last Long” because, well, it was so delicious that it never did. Its popularity soared after Southern Living published a reader-submitted recipe for the cake in 1978, and today, the 45-year-old recipe remains one of the magazine’s most popular recipes of all time.

Side view of hummingbird cake
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

When Serious Eats asked our colleague Nicole Hopper, a seasoned recipe developer, to create a new hummingbird cake recipe for us, we knew we wanted it to be true to the original. But we also wanted to pack in as much sweet banana and pineapple flavor as possible without being cloying or stodgy, as some hummingbird cakes can be. Hopper delivered, with a simple, delicious cake that gets a big tropical kick from mashed and chopped bananas and crushed pineapple, with fragrant toasted pecans for crunch and a tart cream cheese frosting to balance the sweetness of the cake. I’d happily have a slice of it—frosted or unfrosted—with a cup of coffee every afternoon if I could. 

Hummingbird cake is relatively easy to whip up, but the tips below will help you make a phenomenal one each time. Just don’t be surprised if it disappears quickly—with not a crumb left behind—when you serve it to guests. It is, after all, the cake that won’t last long.

Tips for Preparing Hummingbird Cake

Use bleached cake flour. High protein flours tend to develop more gluten, resulting in sturdier, tougher baked goods. While this is great for bread, it’s not ideal for a cake in which you want a tender crumb. With a lower protein content than pastry flour and all-purpose flour, cake flour produces a light and fluffy crumb, making it our go-to flour for hummingbird cake. (Former Serious Eats editor Stella Parks has written at length about the science behind bleached cake flour.)

Overripe bananas are your best friend. The riper the banana, the sweeter it is. As the fruit matures, its starches convert into sugar, developing rich notes of caramel, honey, and pineapple. Ripe bananas are easier to mash, too, which makes prep much faster and easier. Look for speckled fruit with brown or black patches. If your banana could pass for a giraffe, you’re on the right track.

Mash—and chop—your bananas. Most hummingbird cake recipes call for just mashed bananas, but we wanted chunks of banana dispersed throughout, too. We experimented with just chunks, but the fruit wasn’t evenly distributed and the batter lacked the tropical notes that mashed banana brought. The solution? Using both mashed and chopped bananas. It’s the best of both worlds, and ensures you get banana flavor in every bite.

Go for the canned pineapple. Fresh pineapple contains bromelain, an enzyme that can break down proteins. This spells bad news for glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that serve as the building blocks of gluten. As the cake bakes, the bromelain eats away at the gluten proteins, resulting in a stodgy crumb. Canned pineapple doesn’t have any active bromelain, as the process of heating the pineapple to 158ºF (70ºC) deactivates the enzyme. To prevent your cake from baking into an unpleasantly heavy brick, use canned crushed pineapple in lieu of fresh.

Toast your pecans. To bring out the sweet, delicate flavors of pecans, toast them briefly on a baking sheet in the oven until they’re golden brown and fragrant. The nuttiness adds another layer of flavor to the cake, and complements the sweetness of the fruit.

Keep the cream cheese frosting simple. Cream cheese frosting is a must for hummingbird cake. For this recipe, we beat cream cheese, unsalted butter, confectioners sugar, a tablespoon of reserved pineapple juice from the can, and vanilla extract together. Spread generously between the layers and over the cake, it provides a tangy contrast to the cake’s tropical flavors.

Take the internal temperature of the cake. Bakers typically gauge the doneness of their cakes with a toothpick, cake tester, or by lightly pressing the top of the cake to see if it springs back gently. Because hummingbird cake is so moist and packed full of fruit and nuts, it can be difficult to tell when it’s done with those traditional methods. The most reliable way to see if the cake is ready to come out of the oven is to take the internal temperature of the cake with an instant read thermometer. Look for a temperature of 200ºF (93ºC).

Prepare the Cakes: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (175ºC). Lightly grease three 8-inch round cake pans with baking spray and line with parchment.  Set aside.

Overhead view of three cake pans
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Spread pecan halves in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and toasted, about 8 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then chop finely (pieces no larger than ¼-inch). Set aside.

Overhed view of toasted pecans
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla until smooth. Drain 1 tablespoon of juice from crushed pineapple; set aside for Frosting.

Overhead view of whisked eggs
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Chop 2 of the bananas into small pieces (about 1 cup), and mash the other two (about 2/3 cup). Add chopped and mashed bananas to sugar mixture along with remaining crushed pineapple and its juice. Using a flexible spatula, stir to combine. In another large bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and allspice until evenly combined.

Four image collage of building batter
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Pour sugar mixture into flour mixture and, using the same spatula, gently fold until only a few streaks of flour remain. Fold in reserved toasted chopped pecans until evenly dispersed. Divide batter evenly between prepared cake pans (about 650g or 23 ounces per pan). Gently tap pans on counter to smooth batter and release any air bubbles.

Two image collage of mixing in pecans and putting into cake pans
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Bake until cakes are golden on top, spring back gently to the touch, and an instant read thermometer inserted in the center registers 200°F (93ºC), 25 to 28 minutes.

Cakes baked
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Cool cakes in their pan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.  Run an offset spatula or butter knife around edges of cakes, then invert cake onto a plate and transfer back to rack to cool completely, parchment-side down, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Cakes flipped onto cooking racks
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Prepare the Frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or, using an electric hand mixer, beat cream cheese and butter on medium-low speed until smooth and creamy, 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides as needed. Reduce mixer speed to low, and gradually add powdered sugar, beating until fully incorporated  after each addition. Add reserved 1 tablespoon pineapple juice and vanilla, and increase mixer speed to medium-high; beat until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.

Overhead view of prepping frosting
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Using a serrated knife, level cakes if necessary and set the scraps aside for snacking. Remove and discard parchment paper. Place 1 layer, top-side-up, on a turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with 1 cup frosting, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with the second and third layers, placing the cake layers bottom-side up, then cover the top and sides of the cake with a very thin layer of frosting to form a crumb coat. Refrigerate, uncovered, until frosting is mostly set, 30 to 40 minutes.

Four image collage of icing cakes
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Remove cake from refrigerator. Using an offset spatula, cover cake with remaining frosting, spreading it as smoothly as you can over top and sides of cake. Decorate with pecans, as desired.

Adding walnuts
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Special Equipment

Three 8-inch round cake pans, nonstick baking spray with flour, parchment paper, whisk, flexible spatula, stand mixer, offset spatula, serrated knife, turntable