A Brief History of Hummingbird Cake

When I moved to the South twenty years ago, the first thing I did was to order a subscription to Southern Living Magazine. I had been told that it was the Bible for all proper Southern ladies, and I desperately wanted to fit in. Southern Living is a lifestyle magazine that features house and garden plans, information on Southern culture, and more importantly, real Southern recipes. Upon receiving my first copy, I knew that I must learn how to bake something called Hummingbird Cake, which I had never heard of before.

Hummingbird Cake is a banana and pineapple spice cake, which is layered with cream cheese icing, and covered with chopped pecans. I’m not sure why it’s called Hummingbird Cake, but I think it’s because it’s so sweet and moist that perhaps if you left a slice out on your veranda, hummingbirds might alight on it, taking in its sweet nectar. Some people say that it got its name because the cake is so delicious, your guests will hum with happiness when they eat it. Another story is that guests will hover over the cake like hummingbirds. No matter how it got its name, this cake has been a tradition in Southern cuisine since it was first published in Southern Living in 1978, by a woman named Mrs. L. H. Wiggin, from Greensboro, North Carolina. By 1990, the cake had become Southern Living’s most requested recipe.

Cake-baking, in general, has been a prized talent among ladies since Victorian times. If a lady knew how to bake a good cake, she could find herself a fine husband. And women in those days would never share their secret recipes, fearing that another woman might bake their special cake and use it to steal away a suitor. Thankfully today, we ladies don’t have to resort to competitive cake baking in order to get a husband, but it doesn’t hurt to learn how to bake one cake well. And if you’re an inexperienced baker, Hummingbird Cake is the cake for you.

Hummingbird Cake does not need a lot of time or talent to prepare. The moistness from the cake comes from the bananas and pineapple, and the large amount of vegetable oil. The eggs and moist ingredients are mixed in with the dry ingredients, and you can make this dessert by hand, without a mixer. The batter is poured into three cake pans and baked for about a half an hour. After the layers cool, you frost the layers with a simple cream cheese icing, sprinkle with chopped pecans, and it’s ready to serve.

Since the recipe was first introduced by Southern Living, resourceful cooks have used the basic ingredients to create other versions of this dessert, like Hummingbird Bundt Cake, Hummingbird Pancakes, and even a Mile-High White Chocolate Hummingbird Cake, that would suitable for a wedding. I would not recommend serving this cake after a heavy dinner though – it’s just too sweet and rich. I like to serve it with tea or coffee in the afternoon, and sometimes I make one to bring to a church supper or a dessert buffet. Whatever variety of Hummingbird Cake you choose to make, your guests will be hovering over it, humming with happiness.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Zucchini Cake

Florida is a great place to live because I can grow vegetables all year long. I’ve got beautiful tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and herbs available at my fingertips, yet for some reason, I cannot grow zucchini. But, when I lived up north, zucchini was the plague of every backyard farmer.

Shopping bags full of overgrown zucchini were left on my doorstep by a neighbor after ringing the doorbell and running away. This is considered the cruelest of pranks played on the unwary in the Northern states when our gardens are overflowing with the pithy, green monsters. Alas, now that I live in Florida, I’m lacking the gardening skills needed to grow zucchini. You’d think this would be a blessing, but how I miss the challenge of using up zucchini in creative ways, so not a single squash goes uneaten or unloved.

There are several zucchini festivals held throughout the country where zucchini is considered the king of all vegetables, and festival-goers are known to dress their zucchini in cute outfits for a zuke fashion show, or attach wheels to them and race them down Main Street. I, however, prefer to turn them into relishes, pickles, pancakes, quiches, and even low-carb hash browns. Larger varieties can be stuffed like peppers, and with a special gizmo called a spiral slicer, you can even make spaghetti with your zucchini.

I discovered that the growing season for zucchini in Florida is not the same as the north. It prefers to be planted in September and October, or January and February. But it makes no difference to me what time of year zucchini is at its peak, as my cyclical cravings and planting charts cannot seem to come together. At one point I talked to one of the farmers at the farmers market, wondering why I can’t grow zucchini here, and his answer is “Bees. You need more bees.” Zucchini should one of the easiest vegetables to cultivate in temperate climates, but in parts of Florida where many of us live in mosquito spray districts, the flower cannot be pollinated properly. So when I need zucchini, I buy them at my local farmers market.

It seems absurd to spend money on zucchini, yet I must have them. My favorite thing to make with fresh zucchini is zucchini cake – it’s dense and moist, speckled with green, and dotted with golden raisins. The icing is made of goat cheese and cream cheese, and the sides of the cake are covered with chopped pecans. This cake will feed at least a dozen or more zucchini-loving guests, and at about 1,800 calories per slice, you might opt not to eat any dinner that night, and just eat cake.

The cake recipe I like to use is a handwritten scribble on a scrap of lined paper that I’ve coveted for years, and I have no idea where it came from. But it’s a basic carrot cake recipe where I will substitute zucchini for the grated carrots. It’s a no-fail recipe – seems no matter how you throw the ingredients together, it always comes out perfect. And you only need about three or four small zucchini to make this cake, but I always buy three or four baskets. Why so much, you ask? To leave some on my neighbor’s doorstep, of course!

(A portion of this story originally appeared in Jacksonville Magazine.)

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


A Brief History of Joe Frogger Cookies

The first time I ate a Joe Frogger cookie it was a dream come true. Picture this: An eight year old girl handed a molasses cookie the size of a dinner plate, and a giant glass of milk to go with it. I bought this monstrous cookie on a school field trip to a living colonial museum, where pilgrim girls churned butter and blacksmiths shoed horses. I don’t remember much more about the trip because I was engaged in some major cookie eating.

I had never had a cookie like that before – it was super crunchy on the outside, a bit soft inside, and heavy as an iron skillet, perfect for milk-dipping. It would be years before I found out that it was called a Joe Frogger, and even more years before I found an authentic recipe for Joe Froggers on the Internet. The legend goes that this cookie, which was originally made with molasses and rum, came from a man named Joe Brown from Marblehead, Massachusetts. He was a free African American who owned a tavern in town with his wife, Lucretia. It’s said that Joe would use the cookies to trade for rum from sailors who came to town. A bit of rum was added to the cookies, and I’m certain that even more rum ended up in Joe Brown’s belly. Because the tavern was located next to a frog pond, locals named Brown Joe Frogger, hence the name of the famous cookie.

There is an alternative story to the Joe Frogger cookie however, where his wife Lucretia was the one who actually invented, and spent most of her life, making the cookies. She supposedly poured the batter into a cast iron skillet and the odd shapes that the cookies took on looked like frogs’ legs. I’m not sure how the rum played a part in that story, but something tells me that Joe Brown probably stood on the sidelines, sipping rum, watching his wife make cookies. Nevertheless, Joe and Lucretia Brown ran a successful business in Marblehead, and their cookies have won their place in the heart of colonial America, and beyond.

Joe Froggers are not the easiest cookie to make. I suggest you use a standing mixture with a paddle attachment, because the dough is extremely stiff and very hard to stir by hand. The other thing about the dough is that it’s quite sticky and needs to be refrigerated overnight. You may have to use quite a bit of flour for rolling and only roll a few cookies at a time because when the dough comes to room temperature it can be a mess to work with. A coffee can makes a good cookie cutter, or you can use a salad plate as a guide and cut around the edge with a sharp knife. But you can make them smaller, too.

For best results, bake your Joe Froggers on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and be sure to keep an eye on them as they bake. They should be just barely browned on the edges and still soft in the middle. You don’t want to over bake them because they become harder as they cool. But most people I know eat them dipped in milk or coffee anyway, so go ahead and bake them to your liking.

Joe Froggers will last forever in a cookie jar – they never get stale. And they’re a great surprise for a cookie-loving child – and I’m sure you must know at least one of those!

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.