ube layer cake + seven years of hummingbird high

November 6, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

Happy Seventh Birthday to Hummingbird High!

For those who came for the recipe, I'll keep things short and sweet up here: I'm celebrating the (lucky number) seventh anniversary of starting my blog with an ube layer cake (complete with ube Swiss meringue buttercream frosting!) inspired by my Filipino heritage. Ube is a sweet purple yam that is often used in Filipino desserts; I've been experimenting with it more and more in my recipes (see: ube cinnamon rolls and ube babka). The cake's frosting decoration is inspired by kintsugi, a Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery by brushing the pieces with gold leaf and gluing them back together to create a beautiful and unique webbing pattern. As usual, don't forget to read the baker's notes to learn more about ube and get all my best kintsugi frosting tips. Yay!

For everybody else who came to read the actual post, all I can say is this: you make my heart so full. I am still always surprised by how many of you take the precious time out of your day to read and follow along on my adventures. And as you probably already know, a few years ago, I started the tradition of doing a sort of retrospective of my blog on its birthday by discussing the varying and mostly surprising ways that Hummingbird High affected (and continues to affect) my life. Previous posts have reflected on a variety of different topics, including how this blog saved me from the depression and anxieties of my mid-20s by giving me a sense of community and accomplishment, while more recent posts have focused on the ever-changing blog world and my constant struggles with blog burnout due to navigating the increasingly breakneck speed of the internet and ever shifting world of social media. This year, I'm going to take the discussions of the previous years one step further by talking candidly about what many consider taboo: money.

Long-time and careful readers of Hummingbird High will already know that, up until last year, I worked a full-time job in tech. Doing so provided me with a six figure salary and benefits that left me pretty comfortable (if you came for specifics, you can read this anonymous interview I did for The Billfold that caused quite a few side-eyes and snark about my photography on Reddit); as a result, earning money on this blog was always a bit of an afterthought. As opposed to focusing on creating content that would "monetize" my blog well by bringing in new traffic, my tech salary let me do, well, whatever the fuck I wanted to on Hummingbird High. I didn't worry about making posts and recipe names SEO friendly, I made recipes with obscure ingredients that hardly any folks cared to make, I kept the weird blog name that didn't really make sense any more. Because guess what? That dirty tech money allowed me not to worry about any of it and, perhaps best of all, let me decline generous sponsored posts from companies whose product I didn't particularly care for. Non-bloggers always called Hummingbird High my "side-hustle", but I knew the truth: it was less of a hustle and more of a, er, side-amble, if you know what I mean.

And although that tech salary gave me the creative freedom to run my blog the way I wanted to, it was always a double-edged sword: while I was rich in money, I was extremely poor in time. While the obvious solution would have been to give up one for the other, I couldn't bring myself to give up what gave me so much security (tech) and what gave me so much joy (this blog). Besides, I felt like I was already doing the bare minimum for my blog, saving my weeknights and weekends for baking and hastily writing blog posts on my subway commutes. But as the years stretched on juggling both, it seemed that every minute spent at my corporate job seemed like a missed opportunity to not only do what I loved, but also a personal failure to pursue a privileged option unavailable to many — that is, to rely on my passion solely for income, and to officially make the transition to owning and running a small business of my own without going into debt or taking out a third party loan.

If my life were a movie, there would have been some big, dramatic catalyst that resulted in me quitting my job in an epic, bridge-burning fashion. The truth is much quieter and boring: my cookbook went to auction in the summer of 2017; I realized that writing a cookbook was a full-time job in itself (more on that in next year's blog anniversary, probably) and took reduced hours at my tech job, before switching to freelance. My team wished me well and the VP of my department promised to buy all 100+ members of my former engineering department copies of my book.

Spending less time in tech allowed me to focus on Hummingbird High in ways I'd never been able to before. Doing so was both a blessing and a curse: while I could spend days honing on on recipes and photos, I now found myself worrying about my ads, traffic, SEO, numbers, growth, and everything I'd previously ignored. Interestingly enough, I also found myself working more hours on Hummingbird High than I ever did for my tech job (and believe me, I kept long hours then too). The work is different, but in my eyes, no less valuable and infinitely more thrilling than sitting in meetings convincing vendors and engineers to prioritize my JIRA tickets. The best part is that no minute goes un-wasted; unlike in corporate, where you often have to wait around for emails, meetings, and external decisions to be able to do your work, working for yourself eliminates most of those inefficiencies. The ISTJ in me was thriving.

But ah, Michelle. What about the money?

Since doing that Billfold interview about my blog earnings in 2016, those figures have almost quadrupled and Hummingbird High has outstripped my generous tech salary by a decent margin. I wish I could tell you why or how, but realistically, I haven't done much beyond doing what I've always done: developing recipes for baked goods that appeal to me (and sometimes, no one else), and taking the best photos I can within my limited knowledge of photography. Despite what all those guides tell you on how to build your brand and grow your audience and whatever else, the truth is, it's mostly the marketInfluencer marketing is hotter than ever, and more brands are throwing bigger budgets at established bloggers for sponsored work. I don't actually do any more sponsored posts now than I did back in 2016; my agent just gets me better rates and longer-term contracts. But before you run off to quit your day job, let me warn you that the very same market that is full of opportunity is also more saturated than ever — despite what all those online courses promise, it's much harder to grow your audience, and that ultimately matters since contracts and partnerships are determined by these figures. While many are optimistic, I've always been more pessimistic realistic. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and am always preparing myself for the days in which Hummingbird High won't be able to pay the bills anymore: by building out an Airbnb apartment, taking on more freelance tech work, experimenting with a part-time job more in line with food and photography, and finally trying to tackle the big project I dreamed up several years ago.

So, what does that mean for Hummingbird High? My hope is that it will mean, well, absolutely nothing. I started this blog because I genuinely love to bake; I continue to blog today because of that very same love, still. Everything else — the blogging, the photography, the sponsored posts, the followers — has been a wonderful yet secondary privilege. And when everything else finally fades, my hope is that my love for baking, desserts, and all things sweet will keep Hummingbird High persevering for many years to come.

Happy Seventh Birthday, Hummingbird High!

See previous years' anniversary posts:


Some baker's notes:
  • Let me warn you now — this is not the easiest cake to make. Because ube is heavy, the recipe instructs you to leaven the cake in three ways: with conventional leavening ingredients (in this case, baking powder), by beating sugar and butter together to create air bubbles in the batter (the conventional creaming method used for cakes), and by making a meringue from egg whites that the ube is then folded into. That means you'll need two bowls for mixing. If you have a handheld electric mixer with two sets of beaters (one for mixing batter and one for whisking it), you're in luck — it's the best tool for the job since you can just swap out the beaters as you move between two medium-large bowls. Although I provide instructions with a freestanding electric mixer AND a handheld one, I recommend just forging the stand mixer entirely and using the handheld one instead. For those on a budget, I recommend this cheap yet incredibly durable Hamilton Beach mixer (I've had it since college and it has yet to break down on me!) and for serious bakers, I recommend Breville's Hand Mixer — you can read my review about it (along with Deb from Smitten Kitchen!) in the New York Times' review site, The Wirecutter.  

  • I've already briefly described what ube is up top, but I'd be remiss if I didn't provide more clarification. Ube is a purple yam different from purple sweet potatoes and taro. In the Philippines, it's commonly eaten as "ube halaya", which is made by cooking down the ube yam in evaporated milk, butter, and sugar to create some kind of jam/pumpkin puree similar to what you can get canned in the United States. Folks frequently refer to this ube halaya jam as "ube" itself. For this cake and all the previous recipes in my blog using ube, I actually use ube halaya jam. You can usually find a bottle of that stuff in the Filipino or Hawaiian aisle of a Chinese or Japanese supermarket; the most commonly available brand in the United States is Monika. In a pinch, you can order ube halaya jam on Amazon, but know that you'll be paying twice as much since a bottle of ube halaya jam at the Asian supermarket usually doesn't cost more than $5 a pop. And for all ube recipes, ube extract by McCormick (available online via Amazon too) is essential — ube on its own tends to be a subtle flavor, so the extract will really ramp up both the flavor and purple color of your baked good. On that note, don't be concerned if your cakes come out of the oven looking brown; the insides will be nice and purple, I promise. 

  • I also already mentioned that this cake's frosting decoration was inspired by kintsugi. I first learned about kintsugi when a shelf in the cabinet holding several of my beloved prop plates for food photos broke, breaking several of my favorite plates and bowls. As I Instagram-Storied the whole mess, several of you recommended I repair the shards with kintsugi, and I've been obsessed with the art ever since. I wish I could take credit for turning the design into a cake, but I recently started following this bakery in San Francisco, Butter And, who specializes in decorating cakes in kintsugi (see here, here, and here) — follow them on Instagram, their stuff is amazing! For the design, be sure to use edible goldleaf (available on Amazon) and a clean pair of tweezers and watch this video on my Instagram Stories for the process on how to create the border. I promise that the entire design is easier than it looks, but it is time consuming and you'll need to know how to smoothly frost a cake (I recommend reading my friend Tessa's guide if you need guidance on how to do so).

  • Finally, because I was pulling out all the big stops for this cake, I made two types of Swiss meringue buttercream frosting — a vanilla flavored one and an ube flavored one for the ombre effect. It is time consuming to make two batches of Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, so I recommend breaking down the process and making the vanilla one the same day you make the cake and frost it, and then finishing with the ube frosting the next day. The cake, when covered in frosting, will keep wonderfully in the refrigerator and be perfect for frosting the next day. Alternatively you can make one giant batch of Swiss meringue buttercream frosting (simply double the vanilla recipe provided) and divide it in half to make a vanilla version and an ube version by folding in 1/2 cup ube halaya jam, 1 tablespoon ube extract, and purple food coloring in the second batch. You got this. 

monster brookies

October 29, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

Confession: I am not a Halloween person. The last time I was super into Halloween was maybbbeee my senior year of college, in which I was small enough to fit into a kiddie cow costume (hahahah, the days in which I am small enough to fit into kids' clothing are long gone) and my British best friend dressed up as a bloodied butcher as part of a dark joke. We may or may not have gone to a bar named "The Pub at the End of the Universe" after a charmingly awkward Masquerade Ball at the Student Union — I genuinely don't remember. All I know is that Halloween has been a disappointment since then; a messy whirlwind of expensive costumes that are neither sexy nor funny (because I've never been successful at being either), failed nights out when bouncers refused to let me into the door at Bootie SF (another long story for later), and trick-or-treaters failing to show up at my door despite me going hogwild at Costco and buying several bags of Haribo gummies, resulting in us still eating the leftovers months later.

Although I've sworn off handing out candy this year (and maybe all future years) after last year's fiasco, I am finding myself sucked into the Halloween spirit here and there. I may or may not have tried to purchase all the limited edition Halloween-themed candies on this list (I mean, Sour Patch candy corn??? Dope.) and most definitely purchased a bag of Halloween-themed Oreos to binge on while I re-watch Love, Simon for the third time while crying hysterically in sweatpants. And then of course, there are these cookies: my brownie cookie (brookies, get it?!) recipe from yesteryear, studded with my favorite non-gummy Halloween candy, Reese's Pieces, and monster googly eyes because they were on sale at my local supermarket. Enjoy!


Some baker's notes:
  • Candy googly eyes are available online; I used the Betty Crocker variety found at my local Safeway, but there are a bunch of fun ones available on Amazon (like these Wilton ones). For best results, it's best to stick the eyes immediately after you pull the cookies out of the oven and place them (still on their trays) on a wire rack to cool, when the cookies are still soft and malleable. Placing them on the cookie dough balls before baking will cause them to melt.

pumpkin spice pull-apart bread

October 24, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

This post was sponsored by Land O'Lakes, my favorite butter company! As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and I'm incredibly excited to be working with Land O'Lakes all year long because of their high-quality butter and dairy products. Thank you for supporting Hummingbird High and my awesome sponsors!

I don't know about you guys, but the last few weeks—no, months—have been insanely busy for me. I feel like I've been running around across the country and even the world, from France to England to North Dakota to Kentucky. I've been finding little pockets of time to bake for you here and there, but if I'm being honest, everything's felt really rushed.

When I worked in corporate, I've never been the kind of person who glorified being busy. I always tried to work smarter, trying (but not always succeeding) to contain all my work within the 8-hour-day/40-hour-work-week. Because let me be honest with you: the work I did, which was hard and boring and consisted of me and my team moving data from one database to another in faster and more efficient ways, was NOT saving anybody's life. To me, it was always more important that me and my team members went home to get well-rested and motivated for the next day.

So I was especially excited to find myself home after all my work travels with a calendar completely clear and free of any commitments for the week. Blank calendars excite me; it's almost as if I've been given permission to tackle a time-consuming baking project like this incredibly delicious pumpkin pull-apart bread.

Don't let my sentence above fool you though — this recipe is mostly time-consuming because bread is leavened with yeast, which always needs an hour or two to rise (especially in coldish fall weather). I get around that by sticking it in the fridge and letting it rise overnight so it's ready to go first thing in the morning. The filling takes almost no time at all; Land O Lakes® Pumpkin Pie Spice Butter Spread is perfect on its own with a fresh, buttery pumpkin pie spice flavor straight from the tub. And despite its impressive appearance, shaping the bread is a breeze too; slicing the dough into squares and layering them in the pan results in a beautifully craggy dough with the perfect ratio of crust to filling. When warm from the oven, each jagged slice pulls apart easily, resulting in wonderfully imperfect slices of warm, pumpkin bread. Enjoy!

Some baker's notes:
  • The recipe works best if you bake it in a double pullman loaf pan, which is 16-inches long and 5-inches wide. If you don't want to source a new pan for this recipe, you can divide the dough into two 9 by 5-inch loaf pans. Note that if you go this route, the baking time will change significantly; you'll need to reduce the bake time to 25 to 30 minutes.

caramel apple butter galette

October 17, 2018

Grand Forks, ND, USA

This recipe is sponsored by Stonewall Kitchen, who provided the compensation and ingredients to make it happen! I've been fortunate to work with Stonewall Kitchen for a couple of years now as I genuinely believe that they make some of the best jams and jellies in the market. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and thank you for supporting the companies that help keep Hummingbird High alive!

By the time you read this, I'll likely be on a plane crossing the heartland en route to Louisville, Kentucky... or maybe just sitting in the Minneapolis airport eating junk food while waiting for my flight (which is far less romantic, lol). I'm heading to Louisville to take a quick tour of the General Electric factory (more fun stuff on that soon, I promise!), but in any case, I just spent the last few days with my friend Molly on her North Dakotan/Minnesotan farm in Grand Forks, where we were also joined by Alana and Lily, doing all sorts of fun things like picking apples in Molly's yard, baking strawberry chocolate brownies, and getting irrationally excited over slushies at Sonic Drive-Thru!

One of the best things about being a professional blogger is that you get to meet and become really good friends with a lot of people around the country and even the world; unfortunately, that also means there are few opportunities for you and your friends to hang out since you end up being spread out across the globe. In place, we have a lot of fun iMessage threads and hilarious Instagram DMs, as well as the occasional (and usually work-related) trip to Los Angeles, Portland, or New York that grants us the chance to have a meal with one or two (but never all) of the group. It's rare that the four of us are all in the same place at the same time, so I'm very grateful for the last few days!

While we were in Grand Forks, fall hit me in full force; it's much colder up there than in Portland, so I didn't really get into the mood for everything autumn-related until now. In particular, this time of the year always produces such beautiful, tasty apples: always juicy, never mealy, with varieties that range in color, flavor, and more. One of my favorites is the Mountain Rose apple, which looks boring and green on the outside but is actually a beautiful pink on the inside. Unfortunately, Mountain Rose apples are a little tart on their own, and tend to get even more so when baked in the oven — to offset this, I used a generous slathering of Stonewall Kitchen's Caramel Apple Butter in the galette, which tastes like caramel apples in liquid form. I then drizzled the entire thing with a generous portion of Stonewall Kitchen's Sea Salt Caramel Sauce. It was absolutely delicious!

also featured:

Some baker's notes:
  • Let's talk about these apples! The pink flesh is all natural and is a variety specific to the Portland region called Mountain Rose; you can read all about its history in this funny Portland Monthly article. If you don't live in Portland, you can substitute them for the more commonly found and ubiquitous Pink Pearl apple — just be sure to snag 'em when you see them because they're only in season for such a short window of time! 

  • A galette is a free-form pie, which means you can basically form it into any shape you want. I opted for a rectangular design, but the dough will easily make a 9-inch circular galette. Whatever form you decide on, bake it on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper for minimal stickage.

  • Finally, a note on assembly: be sure to buy and use more apples in the galette than you think you'll need, since fruit tends to shrink in the oven. When assembling them, be sure the pieces overlap a fair amount to prevent the bottom crust from showing (as you can see, I wasn't the best at this myself ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). If you're looking for even slices, it's worth using a mandoline slicer for the apples — in a pinch though, you can always just use your trusty chef's knife. You don't want them sliced too thinly; doing so leads to a dry galette. Aim for slices that are around 1/8-inch thick.

pumpkin tonka bundt cake

October 10, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

This recipe is sponsored by Vermont Farm Table, who provided the compensation to make it happen as well as the beautiful maple cake platter you see in all the photos! Their Hundred Year Birthday Board is perfect for birthdays and anything that requires celebratory candles, since it has pegs for almost 100 of them. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and thank you for supporting the sponsors who make Hummingbird High keep running!

I've never been the best at settling back into routine after a vacation; I suffer from what's known as "post-vacation blues" in which I spend the first few days back home mopey that I don't live in whatever city I just visited, bitter that I'm back to eating salads for meals, and annoyed at all the mundane and trivial chores I have to do. It's ironic that I get that way because towards the end of my vacation, I'm usually complaining about how all the tasty delicious food I've eaten has made me fat and how I'm in desperate need of a workout and how I just want to do laundry and sleep in my own bed and blah blah blah. I have to remind myself that, the truth is, as much as I loved London and Paris, I really like being at home in Portland too.

Fall in Portland is an especially wonderful time; the rain and the cold hasn't truly settled in yet, and we get blessed with some perfect sunny days to show off the pretty golden, yellow, and red foliage of the trees. In the past, I've always seen the month of October as the quiet time where things settle down after the whirlwind of summer trips and travel. And there's something to be said for that —I should stop being wistful for the long, hot days where I was on the go all the time and instead celebrate the peaceful calm of October. So what does that mean exactly? To me, that means embracing all things hygge: lighting candles, drinking mugs of steaming hot beverages, cozying up in thick wool sweaters, and eating slices of this pumpkin tonka bundt cake.

For this recipe, I've swapped out most of the ordinary spices found in pumpkin bakes and replaced it with tonka bean shavings. If you've never heard of tonka beans before, I'm not surprised — tonka beans have been illegal in the United States since the 1950s because the beans contain a large amount of coumarin, which can cause liver damage. However, a quick Google search informed me that the ban was mostly unfounded: you'd need to eat at least 30 beans to reach those toxic levels (which is roughly around the same amount at which the perfect legal nutmeg starts to become poisonous too). And one bean goes a long way — a few shavings of the stuff will turn your desserts otherworldly, imparting a delicious, woody vanilla flavor and smell somewhere reminiscent of freshly cooked caramel, magnolias, and the forest after it's rained (lol, I'm not joking). Tonka beans work wonderfully as a substitution for vanilla beans or as an addition to anything with chocolate, which is why you'll see a generous amount of mini chocolate chips studded throughout this cake. Be sure to read the baker's notes below for more information, sources, and substitutions for the tonka beans in this recipe!


Some baker's notes:
  • If you're interested in learning more about tonka beans, I particularly enjoyed this article from the BBC, this one from the Atlantic, and this one from Taste. While I purchased my tin of tonka beans in Galleries Lafayette in Paris (after a particularly inspiring chocolate tonka tart from Hugo & Victor at Fou de Patisserie), you can actually buy tonka beans fairly easily online on Amazon! However, if you're still scared/weirded out by the whole tonka bean thing, no worries. You can use a vanilla bean pod in its place! Simply split the pod lengthwise and scrape all the vanilla beans out into the batter. 

  • Let's talk about the other ingredients in this cake besides tonka beans. This cake uses four egg yolks, which I know is an annoying amount of egg yolks but trust me — it leads to an incredibly moist crumb and is somehow more orange than normal. In a pinch, you can use three eggs plus one egg yolk, but know that your cake won't be as orange or as moist as mine. And finally, it's important to shell out for mini chocolate chips for this recipe: they suspend really well in the batter and disperse more evenly throughout the batter, and they're less prone to sticking to the bundt pan like regular chips. 

  • And finally, a note about my bundt pan: this recipe makes a crazy ton of batter, so it's important that you use a pan with a 12-cup capacity over a 10-cup one. Although a 10-cup pan (like the Nordicware Jubilee pan I used for this recipe) can hold the amount of batter, I definitely had some batter rising up and spilling down the center of bundt hole, which left a bunch of burnt cake at the bottom of my oven that I've yet to clean up. Other bundt cake tips — if you're using an elaborate bundt pan like mine with lots of sharp, tricky crevices, opt for cooking spray instead of butter and flour and be sure to use an uncomfortable amount of cooking spray to coat the pan before filling with batter. The more you use, the less likely you'll have any cake sticking to the pan; you want all the crevices and edges wet with oil. Finally, the cake will unmold best 15 to 20 minutes after it's been pulled out of the oven, when all the edges and outsides are set but the cake and pan are still warm. 

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