Follow chef Ashley Christensen’s journey from 18-year-old cook to owner at Raleigh’s renowned Poole’s Diner. Her eponymous cookbook pays homage to her simple, hearty, Southern-focused New American cuisine, and if you’ve ever had her sweet potato hummingbird cake, you’ll want the recipe for yourself. Whip up all the favorite dishes Poole’s chalkboard has ever sported right at home, and put that restaurant on your bucket list.
There’s a debate that rages in all corners of the dessert-eating universe: cake or pie? It’s of particular importance in the South, where both tall-as-the-sky layer cakes and blue-ribbon pies are matters of pride and heritage. Though Poole’s has pie in its blood, we could never get away with omitting cake from the lineup.
This occasion-worthy cake is based on a classic hummingbird cake. First published in Southern Living magazine in 1978, the original version, created by Mrs. L. H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, the city where I was born, had banana and pineapple in its batter. It has since become one of the most requested recipes in the magazine’s history.
Our version adds sweet potatoes to the mix and substitutes green peanuts for the traditional pecans. Green, or “raw,” peanuts aren’t roasted like the peanuts at a baseball game, and they have a tender, almost bean-like texture. They’re worth seeking out (they come into season in the late summer and fall), but if you can’t find them near you, feel free to use roasted peanuts or another nut of your choice. We roast the bananas before adding them to the cake batter for two reasons: It concentrates the flavors of the banana and it yields a particularly smooth puree, which is better for the texture of the cake. Roasted banana puree will keep in the freezer in a resealable plastic bag for up to 6 months.
- 4 bananas
- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 cups sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 5 large eggs
- 2 cups neutral vegetable oil
- 3 cups diced pineapple
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup dried black currants
- 2 cups green peanuts
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled (about 3 medium)
- 2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3 3/4 cups confectioner's sugar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups roasted peanuts, roughly chopped, for garnish
For the cake
Preheat a convection oven to 400°F (or a regular oven to 425°F). Arrange the bananas (in their peels) on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in the oven until they are black and slightly deflated, about 25 minutes. Let the bananas cool to room temperature. Remove the peels and discard and transfer the banana flesh and any juices that collected on the pan to a food processor. Process until smooth. Measure 2 cups of the puree and set aside (reserve any extra puree for another use).
Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F convection (350°F regular). Spray three 9-inch cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, and cinnamon.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, and banana puree until well combined. Fold in the pineapple, vanilla, currants, and peanuts.
Grate the sweet potatoes on the large holes of a box grater and fold into the wet mixture.
Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until just incorporated. Divide the batter equally among the three pans and bake until firm and golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 10 minutes in the pans on wire racks, then turn out onto the racks, peel off the parchment, and let cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the icing. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese until smooth. Add the butter and mix on low speed, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer running on low speed, add the sugar by the ½ cup until it’s fully incorporated. Add the salt and vanilla and mix to combine.
To assemble the cake, use a serrated knife to trim the top of each layer to make sure it’s flat (reserve the trimmings for snacking). Place a cake layer on a platter or cake stand. Using an offset spatula, spread 1½ cups of the icing over the first layer. Top with a second layer and repeat with 1½ cups of the icing. Top with the third layer and use the remaining icing to frost the top and sides of the cake. Press the roasted peanuts up onto the sides of the cake for garnish.
The cake, once assembled, can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, but it’s best the day it’s made. Serve at room temperature.