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CAROL OF MOON | Hummingbird cake: A tasty slice of 1960s Jamaican travel marketing


By Carol Dzadony-Mancini


November 2023 marks two years since I started my food blog journey. It's been exciting and cathartic all rolled into one.


After 73 blog entries, it's time for reflection and self-assessments.


(Talking to myself, but feel free to ask these same questions to yourself):


Have you accomplished your goal of getting people more interested in (making their own food)?


Have you done everyhing you set out to do?


Are you trusting your heart?


Are you still having fun?


If you answered yes to all three questions, please continue with your passion.


Yes. Let's proceed.


I started helping my parents make food at a young age, progressing to cooking toast and making myself bowls of cereal.


I watched my pap cook in one pot for one man and one small child(me!), enough food for an army. (The concept of leftovers wasn't really in my brain) I often wondered how in the hell did my Bubba keep all that food hot for Christmas Day dinner.


The first protein I cooked, bone-in thin pork chop, was sprinkled with Season All and sautéed in a skillet. Like shoe leather.


My signature dish in college, spaghetti sandwiches – leftover spaghetti (jar sauce – don't throw shade) fried in butter, sprinkled with garlic salt and smashed between two pieces of white bread garlic toast. I still eat this today – homemade sauce and Italian bread are used in the recipe.


Then, rice – plain white with butter and salt. A staple for poor college kids. Marinated grilled chicken skewers. More veggies than meat, cause back in the day, produce was less expensive.

Although I still make the food above, this culinary journey grew as I grew. Countless magazine articles, cookbooks, cooking shows and a wonderful mentor in Cindy Litterini Smith and Mark Singo (they taught me so much about food!). Cindy had a love for hummingbirds still fresh in my head, almost 5 years after her death.


She taped a handwritten suet recipe for the birds on a wall in the kitchen that was removed during renovations. I kept the recipe, safely placed in a book now that she is no longer in her earthly body. She really is never far away.


I was always skeptical of the universe sending me messages (I am no longer a skeptic).


Here's why.


Completing a kitchen renovation, the dry-waller was skim-coating the walls. Some of the drywall mud splattered on the floor. It wasn't a big deal; new floors were being installed on top of the old ones (money-saving hint). He did his part and left for the evening.


The following day, Glen Knox, (of Knox & Albanowki General Contracting) the greatest contractor in Western PA, was about to work on the new floors. I looked down and saw it... the outline of a hummingbird.


I gasped (literally). Was it a sign? I was shocked. And I thought I was seeing things. So, I asked Glen to confirm what I thought I saw.


Sitting there, in the floor in the splattered drywall mud, was a sign. A hummingbird. A gift from my friend, neighbor, cousin and mentor.


Yep, he even dotted an eye with his Sharpie.

Cooking Class with Carol:
Vintage Hummingbird Cake

My colleague and now friend, Elizabeth Perry got me interested again in baking.


When it comes to decadent desserts, few can rival the charm and flavor of a hummingbird cake. This delightful treat isn't steeped in history per se, and its tastes are bursting with tropical goodness, but it is not reminiscent of true Jamaican cooking techniques as one might believe. Even though it has earned its place as a beloved Southern classic, it's an ethos of a great marketing campaign.


According to Epicurius, in the late 1960s, the Jamaica Tourist Board used bananas and pineapples, some fruits of the island, in a recipe distributed to Jamaican newspapers that sought to spread the word about the flavors of the island's produce, and the hummingbird cake was born. The hummingbird, Jamaica’s national bird, was and is colloquially known as Dr. Bird, and so the cake often received the same nickname. The cake itself is the height of Jamaica’s mid-20th century post-colonial tropical flair; having become free from Britain’s rule in 1962. 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 elements of the hummingbird cake are rarely seen in traditional Jamaican baking. Denser cakes like the toto cake and bulla cake rely on starchy ingredients like grated cassava and the milk of coconuts. The hummingbird cake, on the other hand, is an airy, soft sponge based on dairy products, nuts, cream cheese, and other ingredients that were all arguably informed by Jamaica’s British heritage.


Food editors and the influencers of the day, particularly from the Southern states of America, got hold of this recipe and from there, you could say it went viral – rapidly spreading into the annals of American cooking and beyond. The cake today is frequently termed a “Southern Classic” and remains Southern Living’s most popular recipe of any kind since its feature in February 1978 after a North Carolina resident submitted a version. Since then, the cake, like all recipes that travel the world, has morphed countless times in terms of size, layers, frosting and design.


The cake is still a reminder of the disconnect between the Jamaica the world sees and the Jamaica that Jamaicans see. It’s a disconnect between manufactured resort beauty and raw local beauty – the private beaches of Montego Bay versus the hustle and bustle aura of Downtown Kingston, underpinned by pulsing bass-heavy sound systems. While the likes of ackee and saltfish (and the more famous jerk chicken) have come to represent the island, frugal soups and curries-laden starches are the real crux of Jamaican food. Likewise sweet snacks like gizzadas and toto fly off the shelf quicker than slices of the hummingbird cake. As it should be!


Things to consider

Although I encountered several recipes while researching hummingbird cakes, this recipe was by far my favorite.


Using canned, crushed pineapple, drained with juice reserved. Once baked, if the cake is too dry, the pineapple juice can be brushed on top of each layer to moisten the cake.


Ripe bananas with brown sugar spots are important for the sweetness of the cake. If the bananas are not ripe enough, two things will happen, they will not smash smoothly, and they will not be sweet enough.


Using cake flour will help make certain the cake is soft and fluffy. Softsilk is a great brand of "cake" flour.


Separating the batter into three pans will yield a beautiful cut piece of cake. The taste will be the same with one, two, or three layers, but if you're looking for a wow factor, trust me, three layers is a beauty.


Allow each layer of cream cheese frosting to set up, in the refrigerator before the final icing. it will look more professional if allowed the time to harden.

 
Recipe

Ingredients

CAKE

  • 1 1/2 cups pecans (roasted and chopped)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (spoon and level)

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon Allspice

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 2 cups bananas (mashed, about 4 large ripe bananas)

  • 1 8-ounce can pineapple (crushed)

  • 3 large eggs (room temperature)

  • ⅔ cup canola oil (or vegetable, or melted coconut oil)

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar (or packed light)

  • ¾ cup granulated sugar

  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

ICING

  • 16 ounces cream cheese (full-fat brick, room temperature soft)

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter (room temperature soft)

  • 5 cups confectioners' sugar

  • 1 tablespoon milk

  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

  • 1/2 salt (or more to taste)

GARNISH

  • 1/2 cup roasted pecans (chopped)

Preheat the oven to 300°F (149°C). Spread pecans onto a lined baking pan. Toast for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven.


Turn the oven up to 350°F (177°C). Grease three 9-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper rounds, then grease the parchment paper. Parchment paper helps the cakes seamlessly release from the pans.


Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt together in a large bowl.


Whisk the rest of the cake ingredients in a medium bowl. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined. Fold in 1-1/2 cups toasted pecans. (Save the rest for garnish.) You should have about seven cups of batter.


Spread batter evenly between the three prepared cake pans. Bake for 26-29 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Rotate pans halfway through baking.


Remove cakes from the oven and allow to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack. Once completely cooled, remove cakes from pan and level the tops off so they are flat. I simply use a serrated knife. Discard the tops or eat. YUM!


Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter together on high speed until smooth and creamy. Add confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, milk, and salt. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then switch to high speed and beat for two minutes. Taste. Add more salt if needed.


Assemble and frost: Place one cake layer on your cake turntable, cake stand or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with frosting. Top with second layer and evenly cover the top with frosting. Finish with the third cake layer and spread the remaining frosting all over the top and sides. Garnish with leftover toasted pecans. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before slicing or else the cake may gently fall apart as you cut.


Leftover cake is delicious covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.


Enjoy!


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