Pumpkin Cake

4.95 from 19 votes
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Easy to make light and fluffy pumpkin cake recipe with a delicious cream cheese frosting. Each slice is tender, moist, and bursting with spices.

Slice of pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting and crushed pecans on top.

When fall hits, so do the pumpkin recipes. One of the simplest ways to enjoy it is to make a delicious pumpkin cake. This recipe is low-key, unlike a traditional layer cake. Just bake the deep orange batter, frost, slice, and devour! It’s the perfect dessert to transport and share because everything can be kept in the same pan. The fewer dishes, the better!

I use pumpkin puree and a combination of sugars to make a moist cake. A variety of leavening agents keeps the cake tall and light in texture. A blend of aromatic and bold spices instantly elevates the flavor of the mild pumpkin. A smooth and luscious cream cheese frosting is a classic pairing to spread on top.

Flour selection

With all the types of flour available for baking, I use all-purpose flour for its moderate protein level. We want just the right amount of gluten formed to create a tender cake with a slightly springy crumb. The pumpkin puree adds extra fiber and moisture to the batter.

We need enough protein from the flour and eggs to solidify the structure, hold the pockets of air, keep the cake light, and not be dense or chewy.

Leavening agents lighten the texture

I use two leavening agents for nice thick slices to help the cake rise to about 2-inches in height. Equal amounts of baking powder and baking soda provide instant and delayed gas formation when heated in the oven.

Baking soda reacts immediately when mixed with any liquid and acid from the brown sugar. In contrast, baking powder has a secondary reaction in the oven. It’s important to bake the cake soon after mixing to trap the most bubbles for lift. 

Add bold spices to the cake batter

Pumpkin puree adds a subtle sweetness and has that characteristic squash taste. If you take a little bite, it’s pretty bland. That’s where a generous amount of pumpkin pie spice comes in handy.

The pre-blended store-bought jars are a quick and convenient option, but it’s also straightforward to make a home batch. It’s just cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice; if you’re feeling fancy, cardamom is as well.

Making cream cheese frosting in a stand mixer.

Use two sweeteners for a tender and moist cake

Sugar not only sweetens but also tenderizes cakes. It weakens the protein bonds formed because it interferes with coagulation (solidifying), which results in a softer texture. I use two types of sugar for this recipe.

First, granulated sugar adds pure sweetness. Second, dark brown sugar has molasses, giving the cake a deeper caramel-like flavor. The residual syrup also attracts moisture, which makes this sweetener a humectant, and keeps the cake moist over time.

Recipe Resources

Pumpkin Selection

The most convenient and consistent option is to break open a can of pumpkin puree. However, you can make it from scratch. It’s easy! Fresh pumpkins may contain more moisture, so strain the puree for a few hours before using it. I stir it into the sugar and egg mixture last, so it’s easier to whip more air into the wet ingredients.

Mixing the batter

When adding the dry flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture, use a spatula to fold it gently. The flour proteins should be hydrated, but don’t overmix the batter as it encourages gluten formation. Too much agitation will make the cake chewy and tough. Look for just a few clumps of flour remaining. That’s when it’s ready to add to the baking pan. 

Pan selection and prep

I use a metal 13 by 9-inch baking pan with high sides for baking the cake. Metal pans tend to brown baked goods more than glass, so keep an eye on the color change. If you are using a glass pan, check for doneness about 10-minutes sooner. The material takes a while to heat up but retains heat very well, so you don’t want the cake to become dry when cooling.

Create a nonstick pan surface

To make removing the slices from the pan easier, grease the bottom and sides with cooking spray or vegetable oil. Sprinkle in flour to coat the fat, which further helps to prevent sticking.

If you plan to take the cake out of the pan for frosting and serve it on a platter, you can cut parchment paper, place it on the bottom, and coat it with fat and flour. This technique makes it easier to flip over and remove it.

Testing for doneness

The cake is ready when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. You can also lightly press the top to check for slight resistance and springiness. I use an instant-read thermometer to test. Typically cakes are finished cooking at around 210ºF (99ºC).

However, it will cool completely in the pan, which will have carryover cooking. To account for that, stop baking when the center reaches 195 to 200ºF (90 to 93ºC). For glass pans, target the lower end of the range since it retains heat longer. Transfer to a wire rack until the cooled cake is ready to frost.

Pumpkin cake in a baking dish with cream cheese frosting spread on top.

Cream cheese frosting recipe

To make a spreadable cream cheese frosting consistency, soften the cream cheese and butter to just below room temperature, 65 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC). This range makes it easier to whip in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer. The fats are more pliable, which prevents a lumpy frosting.

I like to combine the butter and powdered sugar (also called confectioners sugar) in a large bowl to beat some air pockets for a fluffy consistency. Then I gradually add in the cream cheese since it’s denser. Vanilla extract and maple syrup add hints of toffee notes. If refrigerating the topping, take it out about 30-minutes before using it for a smooth but thick consistency.

Add extra toppings

  • Sprinkle cinnamon on top for an extra burst of spice.
  • Mix granulated sugar and cinnamon together for a churro-flavored frosting.
  • Add chopped nuts like pecans, walnuts, or almonds for crunch.
  • Break gingersnap cookies into smaller pieces to put on top. 
  • Whipped cream
  • Caramel sauce

FAQ

How long does pumpkin cake last?

The cream cheese frosted pumpkin cake lasts for 5 days when covered and stored in the refrigerator.

Why is my pumpkin cake dense?

Check to ensure that the leavening agents are fresh for the proper rise. Sift the dried ingredients together to aerate the flour. The eggs, sugar, oil like canola oil or vegetable, sugars, and pumpkin puree must be whipped together to lighten the mixture with air. When folding the ingredients together, make sure not to overmix, or it will become dense.

Should pumpkin cake be refrigerated?

If the cake has a layer of cream cheese frosting on top, it must be refrigerated. The cream cheese is a fresh dairy item that needs to be chilled within 2 hours. Unfrosted pumpkin cake can be tightly covered and stored at room temperature for 1 day.

Close up of a fork slicing a piece of pumpkin cake on a white plate.

Properly whipping the wet ingredients for better lift

One way to leaven the cake is to agitate the batter physically. Whisking the sugars, eggs, and oil vigorously adds air pockets. You can see the change when the liquid mixture turns opaque in appearance, light, and thicker in texture. Mixing room temperature eggs better incorporate it into the batter, making it easier to whip in extra air. Whisking also helps to emulsify the oil in the batter.

Pumpkin Cake

Easy to make light and fluffy pumpkin cake recipe with a delicious cream cheese frosting. Each slice is tender, moist, and filled with spices.
4.95 from 19 votes
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time3 hours
Servings 16 servings
Course Dessert
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

Pumpkin Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • cups dark brown sugar, packed
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups pumpkin puree, 15 ounces, canned

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to 65-67ºF (18-19ºC)
  • 1 ¼ cups powdered sugar
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened to 65-67ºF (18-19ºC)
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup pecans, or walnuts, chopped (optional)

Instructions 

Pumpkin Cake

  • Heat the Oven – Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC).
  • Prepare Baking Pan – Grease a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with cooking spray or vegetable oil. Add 1 tablespoon of flour to the pan, turn, and tap the pan to lightly coat the bottom and sides. Tap out any extra flour that remains in the pan, this will help prevent sticking.
  • Mix Dry Ingredients – In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 cups of sifted flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  • Mix Wet Ingredients – In a large bowl, vigorously whisk together granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and vegetable oil, until thick and smooth, 3 minutes. Add pumpkin puree and whisk until combined, 15 seconds.
  • Make Cake Batter – Fold the flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture and stir until no flour streaks and just a few small lumps remain. Do not overmix.
  • Bake the Cake – Evenly spread the pumpkin cake batter into the prepared baking pan. Bake until a toothpick in the center comes out clean or the internal temperature reaches 195 to 200ºF (90 to 93ºC), about 30 to 33 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack for about 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • Mix the Butter and Sugar – In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or hand mixer, beat softened butter and powdered sugar on low speed until just incorporated. Gradually increase the speed to medium, beating the mixture until light and fluffy, about 1 to 1 ½ minutes.
  • Add the Cream Cheese – Add half of the softened cream cheese and beat on medium speed until incorporated, about 15 seconds. Add the remainder of the cream cheese and beat until smooth, about 15 to 20 seconds.
  • Add Flavorings – Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract. Beat until combined, and the frosting is light and smooth, scraping the bowl as needed, about 30 to 45 seconds.
  • Store – Cover and refrigerate the filling if not used right away. The filling should be cool and spreadable, about 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC).

Assembly

  • Frost the Cake – The cake can be left in the pan and frosted. Alternatively, cover the cake with parchment paper, invert it onto a sheet pan, and then place a serving platter on top and turn it over. Use a spatula to spread the cream cheese frosting over the cake evenly. Sprinkle the chopped nuts on top, if using, or other desired toppings. Slice and serve.

Notes

  • Make your own pumpkin spice blend: 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, ¼ teaspoon allspice, ¼ teaspoon cloves, ¼ teaspoon cardamom (optional). Measure out 1 tablespoon for the recipe.
  • Removing the Cake – If you plan to remove the cake from the pan before frosting, cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. Add the paper and coat the bottom and sides with cooking spray and flour, then add the batter.  
  • Make ahead: The cake can be made 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container on the counter. The frosting can be made 3 days before, refrigerated, and brought to 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC)before using, about 30 minutes.
  • Storing: Tightly cover the frosted cake and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
  • Using only powdered sugar in frosting: The maple syrup can be omitted. Keep the powdered sugar level at 1 ¼ cups for a more robust cheesecake flavor, or increase to 1 ½ cups for a sweeter taste.
  • Churro Topping: In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar and ⅛ teaspoon of cinnamon. Sprinkle on top of the frosting.
  • Cupcakes: This recipe can be used to make 12 cupcakes. Fill cupcakes liners ⅔ full and bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack until completely cooled down.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 16 servings
Calories 414kcal (21%)Carbohydrates 48g (16%)Protein 4g (8%)Fat 24g (37%)Saturated Fat 17g (85%)Cholesterol 68mg (23%)Sodium 281mg (12%)Potassium 170mg (5%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 33g (37%)Vitamin A 3956IU (79%)Vitamin C 1mg (1%)Calcium 64mg (6%)Iron 1mg (6%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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6 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Janet McDonald says

    With all due respect, you need to make it clear that this cake recipe is not one you created but one you are evaluating and enhancing. It’s been making the rounds for at least 17 years, and I’ve seen it attributed to Sunset magazine but can’t verify that. The version I’m familiar with uses all white sugar, not a combination, but the other ingredients and ratios are almost identical. I’ve always used ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and a pinch of cloves. It is delicious and very popular. Your addition of maple syrup to the frosting is intriguing. I’ve always topped my cake with chopped toasted pecans. The contrast in textures is luscious. And by the way, it’s best to let leftovers sit, covered, at room temperature. Refrigerating makes it soggy.

  2. Melissa says

    I made this cake today for Canadian Thanksgiving, instead of the usual pumpkin pie, and it was very good. Moist too! We loved it!
    I added extra pumpkin spice to the cake mix and also a bit to the cream cheese icing.
    Thanks for a great recipe Jessica! I will certainly be trying many more of your recipes : )

  3. Michelle Wilson says

    I made this cake to share with family. Made buttercream icing because not everyone like cream cheese and it tasted just as delicious. Most importantly, my son-in-law suffers from mental illness and he says that this cake is magic because when he ate it, he didn’t feel sad anymore, he felt only happy! So, THANK YOU Jessica, for shining you joy onto him through me! BIG HUGS