Humming into being

cake01_72 “…when you realize that you can neither write nor not write, when you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like the hummingbird. The miracle is that the honey is always there, right under your nose, only you were too busy searching elsewhere to realize it. The worst is not death but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.”
— Henry Miller, “Stands Still Like the Hummingbird” (1962)

The Hummingbird Cake I landed on this year to celebrate my (and my blog’s) birthday came about by mistake. Sometimes, these mistakes are really happy accidents. I had thought the Hummingbird Cake was featured in my favorite novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but that cake was actually another Southern favorite, a Lane Cake, which is a cake layered with raisins and nuts and bourbon (maybe next year).

Truthfully, my misdirection toward a Hummingbird Cake — another Southern classic (Southern Living’s most requested recipe) — was the perfect choice. Spiced with cinnamon and flavored with bananas, pineapple and pecans and layered with cream cheese icing, its charms are clearly apparent. Beyond that, I began to think about the hummingbird and how aptly it fits where I’ve been.

For the longest time, I’ve felt like I’m going, going, going, always going somewhere, days an endless chain of goings from one place to the other and getting what seems to be nowhere (but extremely tired). How the hummingbird must feel as he endlessly flies and buzzes and searches, drawn to this or that color, sometimes finding the nectar and sometimes not.

Resting only briefly (if you’ve caught a hummingbird perched, you feel like you’ve seen something rare), the hummingbird is a blur, its wings and heart unmatched in rate. It speeds in all directions, all days, searching. It is not wrong for the hummingbird to do this, these endless, seemingly random, stabbing jaunts. They seem scattered, but they serve one purpose. The bird is all over the place, but that is how he survives.

blogpicFor a person, this style in behavior and thought can be more dangerous, and tiresome, and fruitless. I want to go everywhere and feel pulled in all directions and do everything at once, but I’m overwhelmed by my own pursuits or dreams of them. I set a bar high and I’m the only “whip-cracker” who holds me to task. I see results — which are important to me — but that’s not everybody’s thing. A little more than five years ago, this blog was a sketch on a piece of paper. Then a little nudge and it became a real, semi-regular thing (more than 100 entries!), even though its creator is somewhat flighty.

For whatever comes of standing still like a hummingbird, it does serve that singular aim — survival. For all the scattered attempts, wing-beating, jabs here or there, distracted by a color with no nectar, zips and ascensions through the air and an occasional perch here or there, the aim is singular here, too. Still, it would be more reassuring, perhaps, to follow a more direct course of flight, like migratory birds, who live in singular aim as well.

Then, there is the urge to just stop. Perch and watch in safety, and try to keep oneself safely in one place. While there are advantages to that, it won’t work completely, either. Some flights are necessary. As Ray Bradbury put it: “…jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

I’ve been doing a lot of looking around lately, trying to find examples of how to move forward. There are none. I realize I have to make my own flight pattern, as strange and random and unnavigable and erratic as it may seem to others who assemble in the congregation of conformity. I am the lonely charter of my own course. And I have to provide my own example. Which is scary, to be sure. But I have some ideas how to do it. I have to ground any limiting thoughts of who I think I am. I have to stop and stretch my wings and allow light to come through them. Don’t perch too long. Don’t fly in panic.The searching should continue, but in less scattered terms, and finding what is where one has always been. To quote Henry Miller again: “Let me be, was all I wanted. Be what I am, no matter how I am.”

bobs01Throughout the year, I search for what I need to make the right birthday cake. I landed on the Hummingbird Cake idea and continued to look for a recipe for it; then it, too, came up by happy accident. My mother got a catalog from Bob’s Red Mill and, much like her food-fixated daughter, fell in love with a cake recipe within. It was a cake comprised of only almond and coconut flours, and boy, did it look good!

almondI have been resistant to the whole gluten-free movement. It’s everywhere, and it’s overkill and unnecessary. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, is a necessary binder that provides texture and elasticity to breads and other baked goods. It is not the enemy of man. But you would think it was, as it is extracted from nearly anything that is gluten-able. Some folks cannot tolerate gluten, and they should have other options. But they are few. The bulk of us can have gluten. Fear not.

Despite my gluten-free rebelliousness, I have been intrigued by baking with other kinds of flours. I made the Magically Moist Almond Cake from Bob’s Red Mill while visiting my parents in June. My mother and I concluded it might be one of the most delicious cakes we have ever eaten. What it lacked without gluten (which I dare say was little), it more than compensated with in flavor — white flour is tasteless; almond and coconut flours are…heavenly! The texture was dense yet delicate and moist.

pineappleNutritionally speaking, I made this amazing discovery: 1/4 cup of regular all-purpose flour has 22 grams of carbohydrate and less than 1 gram of fiber; by contrast, 1/4 cup of almond flour has only 6 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fiber! The carb-conscious among us really should look beyond regular flour. I decided then and there that by adding a few ingredients, this almond-and-coconut flour cake could be my hummingbird. Or, more accurately, “hummin’” bird, with its absence of “g” or gluten.

The Friday before my birthday, I began the cake with its decoration. I had been drawn to some flowers (!) I had found on the Internet. Made of thin slices of pineapple dried in the oven, they resemble golden wildflowers.

pineapp02Upon completion, I thought they looked, well, not right. I considered flitting off to the store, and getting another pineapple and starting over. Then I thought, only God can make flowers, girl, let this one go. I left my pineapple blossoms to rest to a curling shape in muffin tins and went on with my project.

I doubled the cake recipe so I could get three layers. To the dry ingredients, I added a teaspoon and a half of cinnamon. Once the batter was stirred up, I also added two mashed ripe bananas and an 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple, along with about a cup of chopped pecans.
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The day before my birthday, I assembled my cake, using my friend Deanna’s nearly miraculous cream cheese icing that is cream cheese, butter and brown sugar. I added vanilla, lemon zest and some Bob’s Red Mill dried, shredded unsweetened coconut. I decided to frost the cake “tomboy” style, using icing on top and in between layers only. I went through a bit of panic upon transferring layers to top each other, as they cracked a little. Here is where some gluten comes in handy, I thought. Still, better to have cracks in cake layers, given that almost one year earlier, I had an earthquake/birthquake on my birthday.
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The pineapple flowers, placed in a cluster atop the cake, looked better there, like they even belonged. I began to scrutinize the cake, though, which I thought looked too messy. I should have made more frosting. Then I remembered some long-ago advice; you cannot create and critique at the same time.

The cake was likely the most tasty of the birthday cakes I’ve made, lightly spiced and punctuated with sweet fruit, finely textured and not spongey nor chewy like other cakes, but moist and flavorful with almond and coconut. Before eating, I hovered above the lit candles, still in thought: Let me be, was all I wanted. And let me remember to believe in the miraculous of everything.

Hummin’ Bird Cake
(Gluten-free, so no “g”)
Adapted from “Magically Moist Almond Cake”
Makes one three-layer cake

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 extra-large eggs
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups almond meal/flour
1 cup coconut flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Two mashed ripe bananas
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup chopped pecans, plus more for garnish
Cream cheese frosting of choice (see below)
Dried pineapple flowers for garnish, if desired

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line three 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper or oil and flour pan well; set aside.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 7 – 10 minutes. Add in eggs, one at a time, and beat until fully blended. Add milk and extracts and mix until combined. In a separate bowl, combine almond flour, coconut flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until creamy. Fold in mashed banana, pineapple and pecans. Divide batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and smooth tops. Bake until set and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool completely. Stack the cakes on top of each other with a generous layer of frosting between. Cover with remaining frosting. Sprinkle with pecans or more coconut and adorn with pineapple flowers, if desired.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from a recipe by Deanna Lamour

2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
Brown sugar to taste (I used about 2/3 to 3/4 cup)
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 to 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 cup dried, finely shredded, unsweetened coconut (optional)
With an electric mixer, beat together cream cheese and butter until thoroughly combined. Add brown sugar, salt, vanilla and lemon, and beat until well-blended and brown sugar is completely dissolved and no longer granular. Add coconut.

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