I know, I know: We’re still in a global pandemic. It’s no time for party-sized cakes. Passover is in three days and those who celebrate it don’t want to be tempted by forbidden baked goods. But it had been so long since I’d made a towering and abundantly festive layer cake and ever since spotting this hummingbird cake in Zoë François’s fantastic — like, just go buy it right now, you are in for a treat — new cookbook, Zoë Bakes Cakes, I couldn’t think about anything else. It feels forward-looking and spring-celebrational. It is deliciously warm and happy, almost defiant, planning for a brighter year ahead, no matter what the one before it looked like. And so I went all in and made a three-layer celebration cake and flung slices off with friends and neighbors and have absolutely no regrets, except for the fact that it’s gone now.
This cake has a history, too. The tiny, fluttery hummingbird is the national bird of Jamaica (where it’s called the Doctor Bird), which is where this cake originated. The best-known recipe for this abundantly-moist and fragrant pineapple, banana, and pecan cake was submitted to Southern Living in 1978 by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, and almost every rendition of the cake I’ve found follows a similar formula, because it’s clearly too good to be messed with. Zoe’s uses a little less oil, and a smidge less banana, although I added a little back. I added some allspice because I love the way it rounds things out, and use my own cream cheese frosting, with much less sugar than usual. I’ve tweaked it to make it one-bowl, and if you have a food processor, you don’t even need to bother warming up the butter and cream cheese for the frosting. I want this to be easy, because I’ve found (in blowing up group text with “who is around and hungry for a cake sample”) we could all go for a little extra joy right now and Zoë gets it, too: “A cake can turn a Tuesday into an occasion. There is no day that can’t be made better with a little slice.”
Passover-friendlier cakes: I didn’t forget. ;) Here are four of my favorite (dairy) cakes I make on Passover; each are what I consider objectively good — they’re delicious enough to eat any week of the year, whether or not you need a flourless dessert:
6 months ago: Shaved Fennel and Crushed Olive Salad
1 year ago: Carrot and White Bean Burgers
2 years ago: Extra-Billowy Dutch Baby Pancake
3 years ago: Sweet Potato Tacos
4 years ago: Pujabi-Style Black Lentils and Easiest French Fries
5 years ago: Churros, Nolita-Style Avocado Toast and Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart
6 years ago: Black-Bottom Oatmeal Pie and Potatoes with Soft Eggs and Bacon Vinaigrette
7 years ago: Broccoli, Cheddar, and Wild Rice Casserole and Double-Chocolate Banana Bread and Sizzling Chicken Fajitas
8 years ago: My Favorite Buttermilk Biscuits and Coconut Bread
9 years ago: Potato Knish, Two Ways
10 years ago: The Best Baked Spinach
11 years ago: Thick Chew Granola Bars, Arroz Con Leche, and Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs
12 years ago: Thick, Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
13 years ago: Pasta with Cauliflower, Walnuts, and Feta
14 years ago: Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (240 ml) mild-flavored oil, such as vegetable
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons (10 mll) vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- One 8-ounce (227-gram) can crushed pineapple, do not drain
- 1 1/2 cups (about 300 grams) chopped ripe bananas (from 2 to 3)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice (optional)
- 3 cups (390 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (110 grams) pecan halves, toasted, then chopped
- 2 8-ounce (226-gram) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 2/3 (325 grams) cups powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
- Pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) milk or heavy cream
- 1/2 cup (55 grams) chopped pecans (for garnish)
Filling and frosting
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla, and salt until evenly mixed. Add the pineapple and banana and whisk to combine. Sprinkle the top of the batter with baking soda, cinnamon, and allspice, if using, and whisk them thoroughly into the batter, giving it several more stirs than seems necessary. Add the flour and nuts and stir to combine.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans — each will hold about 2 cups or 600 grams of the batter — and spread evenly using a small offset spatula. Gently tap the pans on the counter a few times to release excess air bubbles.
Bake: Cake layers until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 22 to 25 minutes. If you’re not in a rush, you can let the cakes cool completely in the pans.
Make the frosting: [Food processor instructions at the end.] In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with a handmixer, beat the cream cheese on low speed until it’s smooth and there are no lumps. Scrape down the bowl and paddle or beaters often. Add the butter to the cream cheese and continue mixing until smooth, scraping often. You want to make sure none of the cream cheese or butter is sticking to the paddle, or it may end up creating lumps. Mix in the vanilla and/or lemon juice. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and continue mixing until smooth.
Assemble and frost: Run a knife around the edge of the first cake layer, then flip the cake out upside-down, remove the parchment paper, and flip it back onto a serving plate. If it’s domed a lot, you might use a serrated knife to level it for more even stacking. Spread a 1/4-inch-thick layer of the frosting over the cake, making sure it goes all the way to the edges. Place the next cake over the frosting (again, leveling it for a more even appearance, if necessary) and top with another layer of the frosting. Repeat with the last cake layer; I like to place this one upside-down for the flattest cake top.
If desired, at this point, you could crumb-coat the cake. Coat the sides and top of the cake with a thin layer of the frosting and chill the cake until the frosting is firm to the touch, 20 to 30 minutes. This will keep the crumbs of the cake from getting into the final frosting. Use remaining frosting to evenly coat the sides and top of the cake. Decorate with chopped pecans.
Serve: In wedges. Cutting the cake in a gentle sawing motion with a serrated knife will keep nuts from tearing the cake as you press down. Keep leftovers in the fridge. If you have time before serving it, letting the cake warm up at room temperature for 30 minutes before makes the texture even more plush.
A few notes:
– Nuts: The cake contains chopped pecans. I know nuts in cakes are divisive and you’re welcome to skip them or replace them with an equal weight of dried, flaked coconut. For the best flavor and crunch, toast and cool your nuts before using them.
– Food processor frosting: If you have a food processor, you can start with cold cream cheese and butter, cut into cubes. First add the sugar and salt to the food processor work bowl, followed by the butter. Blend until the butter and sugar is fully mixed — look for finely minced and beginning to clump. Add the cream cheese and blend until it’s fully mixed; you’ll want to scrape down the bowl a couple times to avoid clumps of unmixed cream cheese. Add the milk or cream and vanilla and blend until very smooth.
– Scaling this down: This, and all 9-inch round cakes, i.e. the overwhelming majority of SK cakes, halve neatly in 6-inch cake pans, making an absolutely adorable smaller-scale layer cake. I think you should treat yourself to a set of 6-inch cake pans. They’re fairly inexpensive, especially given the joy they yield. Bake 6-inch cakes at the same temperature, and start checking for doneness after the halfway point in the baking time.