Easy pumpkin cake recipe with a delicious maple cream cheese frosting. I use simple techniques to ensure that each slice is tender, moist, and bursting with spices.
Table of Contents
- Flour selection
- Leavening agents lightens the texture
- Add bold spices to the cake batter
- Use two sweeteners for a tender and moist cake
- Pumpkin Selection
- Mixing the batter
- Pan selection and prep
- Create a nonstick pan surface
- Testing for doneness
- Cream cheese frosting
- Add extra toppings
- What to serve this with
- Pumpkin Cake Recipe
When fall hits, so does the pumpkin cravings. One of the simplest ways to enjoy the fruit is to make a thick pumpkin cake. This recipe is low key. 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!
To make a super moist cake, I use pumpkin puree and a combination of sugars. A variety of leavening agents keeps the cake tall and light in texture. A blend of aromatic and bold baking spices instantly elevates the flavor of the mild pumpkin. A smooth and luscious cream cheese frosting is a classic pairing to spread on top. A bonus is that you can make the components ahead of time, for a stress-free treat.
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 lightens 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. Whereas, 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 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. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and if you’re feeling fancy, cardamom is a common combination.
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, which gives a deeper caramel-like flavor to the cake. The residual syrup also attracts moisture, which makes this sweetener a humectant, and keeps the cake moist over time.
The most convenient and consistent option is to break open a can of pumpkin puree. However, you can make pumpkin puree from scratch. It’s easy! Fresh pumpkin 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. The vegetable is very dense.
Mixing the batter
When adding the dry flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture, use a spatula to fold it in 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 the 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 it easier to remove the slices from the pan, grease the bottom and sides with cooking spray or vegetable oil. Sprinkle in some 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 on a platter, you can cut parchment paper, place it on the bottom, and coat 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 done cooking at around 210ºF (99ºC).
However, it will cool entirely 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.
Cream cheese frosting
To make a spreadable filling make sure to 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 hand mixer. The fats are more pliable, which prevents a lumpy frosting.
I like to combine the butter and powdered sugar first 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 for a smooth but thick consistency. Spread the frosting in an even layer on the cake, then slice and serve.
Add extra toppings
- Sprinkle some 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.
What to serve this with
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 together adds in pockets of air. 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. A stand mixer or hand mixer comes in handy. Whisk on medium speed.
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- 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for sprinkling
- 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice, (see note)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ⅔ 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
- 1/4 cup pecans, or walnuts, chopped (optional)
- Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC).
- 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.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together sifted flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- In a large bowl, vigorously whisk together granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and vegetable oil, until thick and smooth, 3 minutes. Add pumpkin puree, whisk until combined, 15 seconds.
- Fold the flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture, stir until no flour streaks, and just a few small lumps remain. Do not overmix.
- 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, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Cream Cheese Filling
- 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 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 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.
- Cover and refrigerate the filling if not using right away. The filling should be cool and spreadable, about 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC).
- The cake can be left in the pan and frosted. Alternatively, cover the cake with parchment paper, invert onto a sheet pan, and then place a serving platter on top and turn 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.
- Make your own pumpkin spice blend: 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom (optional). Measure out 1 tablespoon for the recipe.
- 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 1/4 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 granulated sugar and ⅛ teaspoon 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.
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