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Hummingbird cake is a Southern classic, a towering dessert in the style of a layered carrot cake, complete with toasted pecans and cream cheese frosting. But instead of a vegetable base, it's made with pineapple and banana, giving it a somewhat fresh and tropical vibe. The term "hummingbird" is said to be a reference to the happy hum of contentment it inspires, or perhaps the floral, nectar-like sweetness of pineapple and banana.
If you've never made one before, this cast iron twist is the perfect introduction. Its more casual style and manageable size mean that there's no special assembly or layers to fuss with, just a thick slab of cake under a generous blanket of tangy frosting. What's not to love?
Most recipes call for canned pineapple; an understandable convenience, but one that pales in comparison to the bright and tangy flavor of fresh fruit. Besides, cutting into a ripe pineapple yields more juicy chunks of fruit than the cake itself requires, so I'm armed with extras to cover dinner with Kenji's Pineapple-Bacon Nachos and pineapple al pastor tacos. As a bonus, the core and scraps can be turned into a fresh, no-cook pineapple syrup that's perfect for upping my summer cocktail game.
Typically, hummingbird cake recipes use crushed pineapple and mashed banana, but I've found that puréeing the two together yields a more potent flavor (think minced versus microplaned garlic). For those who prefer to break recipes into bite-size chunks, you can even make the purée a day or two in advance and hold it in the fridge. I like to use an immersion blender to make, store, and pour the purée using only a single container, but, of course, a traditional blender or food processor will get the job done, too.
I approach the batter like a sponge cake, whipping eggs and sugar together (along with the spices and leaveners) until thick, pale, and light. Then, I drizzle in melted butter instead of oil to give the cake a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth richness. As it bakes, the butter develops some lightly toasted notes to highlight the pecans (in this recipe, I don't recommend straight up browned butter, as the darker flavor dulls the freshness of the tropical fruit).
After adding the butter, I reduce the mixing speed to incorporate the flour, followed by the fruit purée. When it's all roughly combined, I shut off the mixer to fold in the pecans by hand. This gives me a chance to make sure the bowl is well-scraped from the bottom up, and to avoid over-mixing at a delicate stage.
When the batter is homogenous, I scrape it into a 10-inch cast iron skillet and bake at 350°F until puffed and golden brown. There will be a touch of carry-over cooking thanks to the heavy skillet, so I pull the cake a little sooner than I would if it were baked in a traditional cake pan. If tested with a toothpick, a few extra crumbs should still be attached; if tested with a fingertip, soft impressions should remain in the puffy crust.
If I have some cream cheese buttercream leftover from other projects (it's a go-to frosting in my house), I'll pull that from the freezer and thaw it to about 70°F (21°C) before re-whipping. Otherwise, I'll whip up a simple batch of cream cheese frosting, essentially a glorified whipped cream made with cream cheese. Of course, if you've got a favorite recipe for cream cheese frosting, that'll be perfect, too.
It takes about two cups of frosting to cover the cake, never mind the weight; different frostings will have different weights per cup, so that's not a reliable indication of how much "stuff" you have or need. When it comes to frosting a cake, volume is the ideal way to determine how much physical space a frosting will occupy. Of course, that's just a rough guideline; you may prefer a more generous layer of frosting since the cake is rather thick, so let your heart (and palate) be your guide. Whatever you do, finish it off with a handful of toasted pecans for an extra bit of crunch.
Thanks to the heavy cast iron skillet, the cake won't slide around in the floorboard of a car, so it's easily transported to whatever summer picnics and potlucks you have in store. Not that you'll be inclined to share. The combination of fruity, tropical cake and tangy cream cheese, contrasted with the earthy crunch of toasted pecans, can definitely inspire a bit of greed. Fortunately, the skillet format won't leave a dangerous amount of cake in your home; it's the perfect amount for a small family to enjoy for dessert one night, with enough left over for a sweet treat the next day.
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