Doctor Bird Will See You Now, and He’s Delicious

You know I love sweets. This is a self-evident truth, not a newsflash. I would, however, like to make an important announcement: A new treat has made its way to the top of my favorites list. Enter HUMMINGBIRD CAKE. Also referred to as “Doctor Bird Cake” or “The Cake That Don’t Last,” this delicacy is not only incredibly tasty, it has a name shrouded in mystery. (Pipe down, PETA. No tiny, iridescent creatures were harmed in the making of this dessert.)

Sugar + Southern tradition + a curious origin? Count me in and pass me a fork.

hummingbird cake


Hummingbird cake isn’t your everyday bakery confection. The overripe bananas and juicy pineapple invoke the essence of the tropics while the sumptuous cream cheese glaze and hearty pecans make it sinfully Southern. This olio of flavors mirrors the cake’s somewhat puzzling heritage.

What is clear is that the recipe reached the masses in a 1978 issue of Southern Living. Supplied by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina with no explanation of the unusual name, it gained enormous popularity and ended up becoming the most requested recipe in Southern Living history.

By most accounts, the cake’s entrée into what would become Southern tradition derived from a nearly 50-years-old Caribbean tourist promotion. When Jamaica Air formed in 1968, their tourism materials included island recipes converted for use in American kitchens—the beloved Doctor Bird Cake being one.

What is a doctor bird and what does an avian physician have to do with dessert? The doctor bird is also known as the red-billed streamertail, the most unique of 320 species of hummingbirds. Indigenous to Jamaica, these national treasures feed on nectar, probing flower blossoms with their long beaks like doctors examining their patients. These little nectar-junkies may be jonesin’ for sugar, but—make no mistake—they’re discerning. Hummingbirds reject flower types that produce nectar comprised of less than 12% sugar, preferring those with sugar content above 25%. This cake is so delicious it will attract even the most discriminating sweet tooth to your table. Thus, according to one legend, why it earned its name.

As much as I enjoy history and storytelling, when it comes down to it I don’t really care where the recipe or its title came from. The bottom line is it makes me hum with happiness, and I want it in my mouth. NOW. You should, too.

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Hummingbird Cake

Note: Because I think it’s pretty, I use a Bundt pan for this recipe. You can use three 9-inch round cake pans, but the baking time will decrease significantly.

1½ cups chopped pecans
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
3 lg eggs, lightly beaten
1¾ cups mashed ripe bananas (about 4 lg)
1 (8-oz) can crushed pineapple
¾ cup canola oil
1½ tsp vanilla extract
4 oz cream cheese, cubed and softened
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 to 2 Tbsp milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 14-cup Bundt pan.
  2. Bake pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan for 8 to 10 minutes, or until toasted and fragrant. Stir halfway through.
  3. Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl.
  4. Stir in eggs, bananas, undrained pineapple, canola oil and vanilla just until dry ingredients are moistened.
  5. Sprinkle 1 cup toasted pecans into Bundt pan. Spoon batter over pecans.
  6. Bake for approximately 1 hour, or until a long wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.
  7. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan to a wire rack, and cool completely (about 2 hours).
  8. Once the cake is completely cooled, prepare glaze: Combine cream cheese, powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 Tbsp milk with a hand mixer until well blended. Add remaining 1 Tbsp milk, 1 tsp. at a time, mixing until smooth.
  9. Immediately pour glaze over cake, and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup toasted pecans.
  10. Win the blue ribbon at your county fair’s bake-off,  or hoard entirely for yourself and (if they’re lucky) your most cherished loved ones.

3 thoughts on “Doctor Bird Will See You Now, and He’s Delicious

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