I grew up in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C., just south of the Mason-Dixon line with a Mid-Atlantic lean towards the North. (President Kennedy once slyly remarked that Washington is a town of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”) It’s an in-between sort of place. During the Civil War, brothers took up arms against each other, affiliations and convictions split through families. We don’t have any real accent in Northern Virginia, but in about an hour’s drive, there’s drawls.
My NoVa-bred mother grew up in a time when the hot breath of violence and turmoil was lapping at the Commonwealth’s heels. The South’s profound social injustices were being called to their reckoning, and my mother’s unease still runs deep. “We are not Southern,” she’d say. (Even though, technically, we are.)
So even with my family’s stone’s throw proximity, my own relationship with the South began much later in life. And as with so much travel and with so many cultures, I discovered it through food. Rich, abundant food, tethered to the seasons and the cycles of domestic life: canning, jamming, salting, smoking, putting up. Sunday roasts and pit barbecue. Simmered greens and stews with origins in Africa. Feather-light biscuits and fried oysters, peach cobbler and mile-high layer cakes. Honest, proud, soulful food. I like the pace and the charm and the hospitality of the South, but I love that food.
As certain TV cooks have made famous, though, the occasional Southern recipe can be an exercise in too much of a good thing (see: butter, cream, sugar, oil). The sweetly-named Hummingbird cake is certainly no exception. I shaved off a full cup of sugar, a quarter cup of oil and an egg, and the result is still plenty sweet and very moist. (That’s not to say this is a low-calorie dessert, of course, but I think you’ll find this version much less cloying and heavy than the original.)
The cake has much in common with a really good banana bread, flecked with coconut, crushed pineapple and chopped pecans for a substantial texture and finished with a dreamy cream cheese frosting. Keep it in mind for Thanksgiving as an alternative to pie.
Or, if you’re thinking like a true Southern hostess, as an addition to pie. Yum, y’all.
adapted from Southern Living magazine, 1978
- 2 C flour, all purpose
- 1 C cake flour
- 1 C brown sugar, packed
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 C vegetable oil
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 C crushed pineapple, undrained
- 2 C very ripe bananas, mashed
- 1/2 C sweetened coconut
- 1 C pecans, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 8″ cake pans or three 9″ pans.
In a large bowl, sift the first six ingredients and whisk together. In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs; stir in vegetable oil, vanilla, pineapple and mashed banana. Add to dry mixture and stir until moistened; take care not to overmix. Fold in the coconut and pecans. (Batter will be thick.)
Pour evenly into prepared pans. Bake 15 minutes on the middle rack. Rotate cakes 180 degrees and continue to bake 10-15 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool cakes in pan for 10 minutes, then depan and let cool fully.
Once completely cooled, use a long, serrated bread knife to slice off the domed portion of the cakes. Frost the three layers or cut the two 8″ cakes to create four layers; use a scant cup of frosting between layers, and use the remaining frosting for the sides and top of the cake. (If you’re running low on frosting at this stage, use less on the sides and garnish with more coconut or chopped, toasted pecans.)
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 1/2 lb cream cheese, warm room temperature
- 4 oz butter, room temperature
- 1 1/2 C powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat all the ingredients together. Scrape down the sides and continue beating until softened and well aerated; a softer consistency will be easier to frost with.