Cream Cheese

Pumpkin Cake—and Proud of It

September 29, 2014

Would you like a piece of cake right now? For Goodness Cake is here for you. Every week, we'll be sharing recipes that prove why cake should be its own food group.

Today: A pumpkin cake that isn't ashamed of who it is.

Shop the Story

I am going to admit something that I might not have admitted two years ago (especially not on the capital-I-Internet where words live for eternity). I like pumpkin spice things. I would not turn down a pumpkin spice latte. I would not turn down pumpkin spice French toast.

But don't scoff at me just yet—I'm not even finished confessing. You see, I also like Uggs, another autumn hallmark both revered and mocked. I could imagine wearing Uggs while drinking a pumpkin spice latte and eating the latest pumpkin spice whatever. I'd do this in public. I'd do this smiling—humming, even.

I am well aware that as a consumer and an eater, I have been programmed to eat pumpkin during this time of year. While squirrels and bears prepare for hibernation by hoarding acorns and berries, I ready myself by making sure that every food I eat that could be pumpkin-flavored is pumpkin-flavored. Yes, it's the product of advertising, but it's come to feel almost evolutionary.

More: Make a pumpkin spice latté that's actually made with real pumpkin.

So I’m giving in. I’m going to eat pumpkin spice popcorn and pumpkin spice Oreos and pumpkin spice pumpkin and pretend that I live in a colonial-style house outside of Boston and that I spend Saturday afternoons raking leaves and rubbing my mittened hands together for warmth. And I'm going to make a pumpkin cake that is unapolgetic in its glory. I'm going to put that cake in the center of my table where it will get the attention it deserves. I'm going feed it to my friends and I'm not going to let anyone say that pumpkin is passé or, even worse, "basic." 

I am indebted to Tartine Bakery and their pumpkin tea cake for the original recipe. This adapted version yields an unmistakably cakey cake without any of the wet sponginess (in the best possible way) of a quickbread—a dessert that you'd serve at a dinner party rather than a loaf cake you'd eat with your morning coffee. By separating the egg yolks and the egg whites, whipping the whites until they're frothy, and then folding them into the batter at the last minute, a dense tea cake gains height and lightness.

More: Transform banana bread into the lighest, purest banana cake you'll ever meet. 

Because a proud cake needs some decoration, I turned to Dorie Greenspan's classic cream cheese frosting, omitting the lemon zest and coconut and reducing the sugar for a tangy topping that offsets the airy cake. For texture's sake (and because I am a fussy human), I coated pumpkin seeds in caramel and sprinkled them over top, crowning the cake and, if I'm getting analytical, paying homage to the seed from whence it came.

If you can't wait for the cake to cool before adorning it, your impatience will be rewarded: You'll have a warm, melty mess perfect for eating out of a bowl or, as I prefer, out of a Tupperware on the subway. 

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Icing and Caramelized Pumpkin Seeds

Makes one 9-inch cake

For the cake:

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9 ounces) pumpkin purée
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature, yolks and whites separated

For the frosting and the caramelized pumpkin seeds:

9 tablespoons butter, divided, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Pinch of cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (raw or toasted)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

The Magical Mini Guide to Cozy Weekends
View Guide
The Magical Mini Guide to Cozy Weekends

Whether you're in the mood for some soup-simmering, leaf-peeping, or nothing at all, your dream weekend awaits...

View Guide

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MicheleP
  • Lindsay
  • em-i-lis
  • Guðrún Guðný Long
    Guðrún Guðný Long
  • Steven Fisher
    Steven Fisher
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


MicheleP December 9, 2016
This cake is amazing. I doubled the recipe to make a 2 layer cake. I've tried many pumpkin cake recipes and this is by far the best! The caramel seed topping is unique and a must for this cake.
Lindsay October 30, 2016
This is truly excellent! I was happy to see generous amounts of spice in the batter. Do yourself a favour and double the seed topping! I made two 7" layers out of one recipe and it was perfect.
em-i-lis November 5, 2015
I just(!) made some fresh pumpkin puree and was dying for a pumpkin cake. Going to make this right now!!
em-i-lis November 5, 2015
I am DYING over this cake. It is sublime! Thank you!
Guðrún G. November 2, 2015
Can i use fresh pumpkin ?
Steven F. November 17, 2014
What if you have Pumpkin Pie Puree? What should be swapped from the recipe? Pumpkin puree and all the spices?
Cindy A. October 9, 2014
Has anyone doubled this for a 9 x 13 pan?
Adelucchi October 7, 2014
Thanks. I love pumpkin spice too. Can't wait to make this. Want to try with an alternative flour. I have buckwheat on hand. Anyone have experience with this?
Akiko October 6, 2014
Great recipe! Light, fluffy and full of autumn taste. I tried this already 2 times last weekend :)
Sarah J. October 6, 2014
Hooray!! So happy to hear it.
chgrennan October 1, 2014
I LOVE THIS TEXT!! And I am right up there with you! Can't wait to try this recipe! I'm going to pack it up and eat it in the leaves after I go pumpkin picking!
Sarah J. October 6, 2014
I love pumpkin picking. It's so much easier than any other kind of picking.
thoughts on making this eggless?
Michelle October 29, 2018
Have you tried a flax egg?
minami September 30, 2014
Definitely going to bake this soon. Looking forward to more of your pieces!
karmaya September 29, 2014
i love your intro - made me chuckle the whole way thru - and look forward to making this delicious-looking cake.
Sarah M. September 29, 2014
<3 <3 <3 this is the best pumpkin cake ever
so proud of you hazel
Sarah M. September 29, 2014
this was supposed to read: "<3 <3 <3 best pumpkin cake ever" and then the so proud part.
stephanie L. September 29, 2014
i unabashedly love pumpkins and pumpkin spice and now you for being so open about your pumpkin love :)
Nancy M. September 29, 2014
Substituting walnut oil for canola in cake/muffins that contains zucchini, pumpkin, carrots, chocolate, even Sunday pancakes adds a great dimension. Even half and half.
witloof September 30, 2014
Wow, what a fabulous idea. Do you use the toasted kind?
Nancy M. September 30, 2014
Depends on what I can find locally, but usually it's not toasted.
Kristen M. September 29, 2014
This is a cake to unite pumpkin spice lovers and haters, and a column for us all -- can't wait to see what you think of next!
Hannah N. September 29, 2014
Haha oh Sarah, this makes me miss you. Come to Portland and wear your Uggs? I'll have pumpkin spice lattes ready and waiting.
Sarah J. September 29, 2014
I'll be on the next flight!
cookinginvictoria September 29, 2014
Lovely column. I adore everything about this cake and can't wait to try it. I am firmly in the pumpkin spice camp too. Just bought pumpkin ale this morning and think that it would go really well with this cake. :)
Sarah J. September 29, 2014
Thanks so much!! Pumpkin ale + pumpkin cake = a match made in pumpkin heaven.
Marian B. September 29, 2014
This really is the perfect pumpkin cake. I want to make it for my mom! We used to eat slices of pumpkin bread with smears of cream cheese, and I feel like this is a refined, grown-up version of that. Everything about this is beautiful.
LittleFrier September 29, 2014
If the cake is as good as the article, sign me up.
Sarah J. September 29, 2014
The cake is better!!! But thank you :)