Pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting are a festive autumn dessert. The bright orange cake is super moist, tender, and bursting with bold spices. The flavor is enhanced further with a churro-inspired topping.
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This cupcake recipe makes perfect individual treats. Pumpkin puree adds the characteristic color and contains several beneficial nutrients. The neutral flavor makes it easy to enhance with sweeteners and spices. The cake batter comes together quickly, and the moisture in the pumpkin keeps the crumb nice and soft.
A tangy cream cheese frosting is a classic pairing with pumpkin cupcakes. To ensure that the consistency stays light and fluffy, I incorporate the sugar and pumpkin first, then whip in the cream cheese. The ingredients must be cool, but pliable before using. To make assembly easy, you can prepare each component ahead of time.
Making a soft and tender cupcake batter
Like my pumpkin cake recipe, I use all-purpose flour to create a soft texture with a little bounce when pressed. Pumpkin is fibrous and high in moisture. It’s essential to have enough protein to provide structure and support the puree.
Baking soda and baking powder are chemical leavening agents that will add air pockets to the batter when baked, keeping the texture light instead of dense. Also, vigorously whipping the eggs with the sugar, butter, and oil helps to incorporate more air.
Use two sweeteners for better flavor
Equal parts of granulated sugar and dark brown sugar add sweetness and keep the cake tender. They both attract and bind to water, reducing the ability of the proteins in the flour to hydrate and form the gluten network; this keeps the cupcake soft. The molasses in the brown sugar also adds depth with caramel-like flavors. Plus, it’s a humectant, which attracts moisture when storing, preventing a dry texture.
Incorporating the pumpkin
I use canned pumpkin puree for the recipe. However, you can make homemade puree from scratch. I add it to the wet ingredients at the very end because it has a lot of moisture. I want the sugar, eggs, and vegetable oil to emulsify together first to create a thickened texture to lighten the batter. The moment you add the puree it thins out, but not all of the air is lost.
To enhance the cake flavor
A pumpkin pie spice blend adds an instant boost to an otherwise bland ingredient. You can make a homemade batch pretty quickly. It’s a simple combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and sometimes cardamom. If you’re in a hurry, grocery stores sell pre-blended bottles.
Mixing the batter
Just like mixing muffins, do not over stir the batter. When the flour mixture is added to the wet ingredients, gluten formation begins to occur. You want just enough to create a matrix to hold in the air bubbles, but too much agitation makes tough and rubbery cakes. It’s okay if a few small lumps of flour remain.
I use a 12 cup muffin pan with two cupcake liners. The extra paper makes it easy to remove and is sturdier to hold. You can also make mini cupcakes. Fill the liners ⅔ of the way, check for doneness around 10 minutes, and then every few minutes after until a toothpick comes out clean.
Frosting the cupcakes
The mechanical shear of mixing the frosting warms it up. So I briefly chill it until it reaches 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC). This process helps the frosting hold its shape and prevents melting when adding to the cupcakes. The refrigeration allows the butter to firm up, making it easier to pipe. For a star-shaped design, I use an Ateco 824 tip or a large round tip (Ateco 806) for a more smooth appearance.
I like to add a touch more cinnamon to the top of the frosting. I find that it’s easier to evenly sprinkle on when mixed with some granulated sugar. Ground cinnamon is very fine and will coat the sugar crystals. This combo gives a churro-inspired taste to each bite.
You can also add chopped nuts like pecan, almonds, and walnuts. Candy corn, pumpkin-shaped candies, and fall colored sprinkles are a fun decoration. Drizzle on some caramel sauce for a more decadent dessert.
Making a pipeable frosting
A classic cream cheese frosting starts with heavy ingredients that become fluffy when mixed together correctly. It’s vital to soften the cream cheese and butter to just below room temperature, about 65ºF (18ºC). This ensures that the needle-like beta prime fat crystals still hold their shape so they can trap the air and lighten up when whipped with the powdered sugar. If the ingredients are too cold, you’ll end up with little chunks of butter and dairy fat.
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- 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, (see note)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¾ cup pumpkin puree, canned
Cream Cheese Frosting (makes about 1 ¾ cups)
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened to 65ºF (19ºC)
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened to 65ºF (18ºC)
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
- Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC).
- Add paper liners to a 12-cup muffin pan. Set aside.
- 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 divide the cupcake batter amongst the cups, about ⅔ full.
- Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or the internal temperature reaches 205 to 210°F (96 to 99ºC) with a thermometer, about 20 to 22 minutes.
- Cool the pumpkin cupcakes in a pan for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, about 30 minutes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
- In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or hand mixer, beat softened butter and powdered sugar on low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Gradually increase the speed to medium, beating the mixture until light and fluffy, about 1 minute.
- 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 and fluffy, about 15 seconds.
- Add the vanilla extract, beat until combined, about 10 to 15 seconds.
- Chill the frosting if needed until it slightly stiffens up and feels cool before piping, around 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC).
- Transfer cream cheese frosting to a piping bag fitted with a large round tip (Ateco 806) or star tip (Ateco 824). Cut the tip off of the bag, then pipe the desired amount of frosting on each cupcake.
- In a small bowl mix 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon. Sprinkle on top of the frosted cupcakes.
- Serve the cupcakes immediately or cover and refrigerate when ready to serve.
- For a stronger vanilla flavor in the frosting, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- For sweeter frosting add 2 ½ to 3 cups of powdered sugar. The more added, the more stiff the texture.
- Make your own pumpkin spice blend: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon allspice, 1/8 teaspoon cloves, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom (optional). Measure out 1 ½ teaspoon for the recipe.
- Make ahead: The cupcakes 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.
- Mini cupcakes: Fill cupcake liners ⅔ full. Bake for 10 minutes, then check for doneness. Bake until internal temperature reaches 205ºF (96ºC). Immediately remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack.
- Storing: Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
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