Brown Butter Pumpkin Bars With Brown Sugar-Cream Cheese Frosting

October 20, 2020
5 Stars
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop stylist: Sophie Strangio. Food stylist: Drew Aichele.
Author Notes

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin baked goods, and I definitely don’t get the appeal of a PSL. But these pumpkin bars? I’m pretty wild about them.

The recipe is inspired by the pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting my husband’s late grandma served at family gatherings each fall. We have her recipe on a small, lined recipe card (remember those?) in her meticulous, cursive writing. I’ve always been curious about its origins. My guess is that it came from a women’s magazine, or a community or church cookbook. But to us, they are (and will always be) Grandma Emanuel’s pumpkin bars.

I followed her recipe to the letter for years. So did my mom, who immediately asked for the recipe the first time she tried the bars. My mom mentioned one day that she ran out of vegetable oil while making them, so she did half melted butter, half oil and preferred them this way. I followed suit, loving the buttery richness and still-lofty, fluffy crumb from the oil.

And then it dawned on me: If melting the butter anyways, why not brown it? And why not sneak it into the frosting too? And while at it, why not use brown sugar versus white in both the bars and the frosting to up the warm, caramelly vibes?

The updated version didn’t disappoint. The nuttiness of the brown butter peeks through in every bite, and the rich, swoopy frosting is the perfect, not-too-sweet match. My mom is now making them this way, and even my husband, who holds on tight to traditions, approved. I think Grandma Emanuel would too.

A few notes: While we've always called these pumpkin bars, the recipe makes what's essentially a pumpkin sheet cake that you cut into squares. Feel free to sprinkle chopped walnuts or pecans over the frosted bars, a route my mom always takes. The same batter bakes up beautifully as muffins—either standard or mini-sized. And while my family of four has never had any trouble polishing off an entire pan, the frosted bars can be wrapped and frozen with good results. —EmilyC

  • Prep time 30 minutes
  • Cook time 25 minutes
  • Makes 16 to 20 bars
  • For bars
  • 1/2 cup salted butter (4 ounces or 1 stick) (if using unsalted butter, increase kosher salt to 3/4 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 15-ounce can (425 grams) pumpkin puree
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • For frosting
  • 1/2 cup salted butter (4 ounces or 1 stick)
  • 6 ounces (168 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) light brown sugar, packed (make sure it’s fresh and soft, not hard and lumpy)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (225 grams) powdered sugar
In This Recipe
  1. Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch cake pan (or quarter sheet pan) with vegetable oil or butter.
  2. To make the pumpkin bars: Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and cook until it turns toasty-brown in color and smells nutty, about 4 to 6 minutes, frequently stirring and scraping up any bits from the bottom so they don’t burn. Immediately remove from heat and transfer brown butter to a heat-proof bowl or liquid measuring cup (scraping all of the brown bits into the cup). Set aside to cool while prepping other ingredients.

    Time-Saving Tip:
    Brown the butter for the pumpkin bars and frosting at the same time, then divide into equal portions—1/2 cup for the pumpkin bars, 1/2 cup for the frosting. Refrigerate the frosting portion for 35 minutes, or until just firm.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup brown butter, vegetable oil, brown sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla until smooth. Whisk in eggs until well combined.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.
  5. Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until integrated and no streaks of flour remain. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and evenly distribute it.
  6. Bake until puffed and firm, 20 to 25 minutes. (Start checking at 18 minutes.) A tester inserted into the middle of the bars should come out clean. Cool completely in the pan before frosting.
  7. To make the frosting: Brown the butter using the same method as described in Step 2 (and see time-saving tip above). Refrigerate for 35 minutes, or until just firm.
  8. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cooled brown butter (making sure to scrape all of the congealed brown bits into the mixing bowl), cream cheese, brown sugar, and vanilla. Beat on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until smooth and creamy, scraping the bowl once or twice. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add powdered sugar and mix until well blended, then increase speed to high and beat until fluffy and creamy, about 15 seconds longer.
  9. To frost and serve: Spread the frosting evenly over the pumpkin bars with a knife. Tightly covered, the bars will keep well for several days.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • EmilyC
  • Dewey Sis
    Dewey Sis

Recipe by: EmilyC

I'm a home cook. I love salads. Two things you'll always find in my refrigerator are lemons and butter, and in my pantry good quality chocolate and the makings for chocolate chip cookies.

2 Reviews

Dewey S. November 23, 2020
I have a very similar recipe from Better Homes & Garden, the main difference is the use of pumpkin pie spice instead of separate spices. And of course brown butter instead of melted butter with oil. I've made a layer cake with the BHG recipe, filled it with pumpkin butter and topped with a caramel cream cheese frosting. This recipe sounds like a great update.
Author Comment
EmilyC November 24, 2020
Oh, love the idea of a layer cake, yum!