From the first moment he tried it, when his girlfriend (now wife) made it for him, chef Edward Lee was hooked on hummingbird cake. The Southern staple is served in a giant wedge at his Succotash restaurants in the District and National Harbor. "The cake itself is pretty standard," explains Lee, with spices, oil and mashed banana creating a dense, moist crumb. But thanks to its ingredients, the dessert is packed with flavor and character.
You may know hummingbird cake as the most requested recipe from Southern Living magazine, where it was first published in February 1978. Consumers of The Washington Post might even remember a nearly identical recipe from May 19, 1977, printed by reader request. While that recipe's headnote calls the cake's derivation "baffling," late food historian Gil Marks writes in a post on ToriAvey.com that the dessert stems from 1960s Jamaica, where it was known — among other names — as doctor bird cake. (The doctor bird, or swallow tail hummingbird, is Jamaica's beloved national bird.)
Around Washington, you’ll find several interpretations of the cheery cake.
Chopped pecans, walnuts or, as at Succotash, shredded coconut provide the finishing touch.
Typically, oil (rather than butter) is the fat of choice; cinnamon is the main spice, but you might find nutmeg and others in the mix. Chopped pecans or walnuts add texture; at Succotash, Lee adds chopped dates and sweetens the batter with molasses.
As with carrot cake, hummingbird cake is most often layered with cream cheese frosting, perhaps in an attempt to achieve a tangy-sweet balance.
Here the cake’s tropical origins shine: Bananas — chopped or mashed — add moisture and flavor, while crushed pineapple adds sweetness and a bit of acidity.
Find hummingbird cake in Alexandria at Hummingbird (220 S. Union St., 703-566-1355, hummingbirdva.net); at Succotash in National Harbor (186 Waterfront St., 301-567-8900) and the District (915 F St. NW. 202-849-6933, succotashrestaurant.com); and in the District at the Cakeroom (2006 18th St. NW, 202-450-4462, cakeroombakery.com) and Ana at District Winery (385 Water St. SE, 202-484-9210, districtwinery.com), where chef de cuisine Benjamin Lambert turns the cake into bread pudding and uses a sweet potato crémeux in lieu of cream cheese frosting (among other tweaks).
More Anatomy of a Dish from Food: