Why It Works
- Egg yolks give this layer cake a rich color and custard-like flavor, like a cross between yellow cake and pumpkin pie.
- A blend of pumpkin purée and milk ensures the batter is flavorful, but not too thick.
- The unique pH and starch behavior of bleached cake flour keep this cake fluffy and light; other flours will not behave the same way.
- A spoonful of potato flour helps keep the cake light and moist.
While I’m all about a fat wedge of pumpkin pie around the holidays, I’ve got a real soft spot for pumpkin cake as well. Between the big swoops and swirls of tangy cream cheese frosting and those fluffy layers of cinnamon-scented cake (not to mention the crunchy pecans), it brings all my favorite fall flavors to the table in one amazing slice.
Unfortunately, pumpkin cake is subject to a few pitfalls that can give it a bad name. On the one hand, it often bakes up like a giant muffin, flavorful but dense. On the other, it’s little more than a glorified spice cake, delightfully fluffy but without any real pumpkin flavor.
A good recipe, however, can bring the best of both worlds together—a bold pumpkin flavor, with a light and tender crumb.
Compared with simpler recipes, like the one for my vanilla butter cake, this one is set apart by its use of egg yolks, pumpkin purée, potato flour, and bleached cake flour.
The egg yolks are added to the butter/sugar base after creaming, while the pumpkin purée is thinned with milk and added with the cake flour at the end.
Together, they give the cake a custardy flavor, like that of pumpkin pie, but on the downside, they add an excess of fat and water. When left unchecked, that can be a formula for a dense and gummy cake, which is where the addition of bleached cake flour and potato flour comes in.
I’ve done a deep dive on bleached cake flour before, but in short: Chlorination changes the starch behavior in cake flour, producing a supernaturally light and fluffy crumb in high-moisture cakes such as angel food or strawberry.
Potato flour works in much the same way, combatting the potential for gumminess in rich, high-moisture cakes (particularly in yolky yellow cakes).
A small spoonful will also help with moisture retention, in turn improving the cake’s shelf life overall (an incredible asset at holiday-baking time).
Together, the bleached cake flour and potato flour help ensure the results bake up cakey and light, rather than muffin-y and dense.
Once those curious ingredients have been taken into account, the assembly method is fairly straightforward. It starts with butter and sugar, along with the baking powder and potato flour, plus a trio of pumpkin pie spices (ginger, cinnamon, and cloves).
The butter and sugar are creamed until fluffy and pale, then the egg yolks are added one by one, followed by a generous splash of vanilla extract. The bleached cake flour and pumpkin/milk are incorporated in alternating additions, then folded a few times with a flexible spatula to make sure the batter is well mixed from the bottom up.
For maximal rise and minimal browning, I divide the batter between two 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum cake pans. You can certainly scoot by with two-inch-deep pans, but the cakes will have a more pronounced dome. (More info can be found in my in-depth cake pan review.)
As with my other layer cake recipes, I recommend leveling the cakes with a serrated knife before filling and crumb-coating.
How to Layer and Crumb-Coat a Cake
For a casual finish, you can frost the cake with my fast and easy cream cheese frosting, or even a fruity whipped cream (freeze-dried cranberries make a particularly nice pairing). For a more polished look, or for cakes that need enough structure to be transported in a car, I’d recommend a sturdy cream cheese buttercream instead.
In either case, I like to garnish the cake with a sprinkling of cinnamon, and a handful of toasted pecans for crunch.
The tang of cream cheese offsets the warm spices and earthy pumpkin flavors of the cake, for a dessert that’s comforting and familiar, if not exactly traditional in terms of ingredients and technique.
Thanks to the pumpkin and potato flour, it’s also a cake that seems to last and last, so you can feel free to whip it up a day or two in advance—presuming you can resist the temptation of stealing a slice for yourself.
How to Make a Festive Pumpkin Layer Cake
Adapted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from W. W. Norton.
For the Cake:
8 ounces unsalted butter (about 2 sticks; 225g), softened to about 70°F (21°C)
14 ounces plain or toasted sugar (about 2 cups; 395g)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon potato flour, such as Bob’s Red Mill (not potato flakes or starch; see notes)
1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
5 ounces organic egg yolk (about 1/2 cup; 140g), from about 8 large eggs, brought to about 70°F (21°C)
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
3 ounces milk, brought to about 70°F/21°C (about 1/3 cup; 85g), any percentage will do
12 ounces pumpkin or butternut squash purée (about 1 1/3 cups; 340g), canned or homemade
13 1/2 ounces bleached cake flour (about 3 1/3 cups, spooned; 385g), such as Swans Down
1 recipe cream cheese buttercream
Ground cinnamon, to taste (optional)
5 ounces toasted pecan pieces (about 1 cup; 140g), optional
Getting Ready: To better synchronize the downtime in both recipes, prepare the cream cheese buttercream before the cake. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease two 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment (explanation and tutorial here).
For the Cake: Combine butter, sugar, baking powder, potato flour, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low to moisten, then increase to medium and cream until the mixture is fluffy, light, and soft, about 8 minutes, pausing to scrape bowl and beater halfway through. With mixer running, add egg yolks one at a time, followed by vanilla. Take care not to overbeat at this stage.
Meanwhile, combine milk and pumpkin purée and whisk until smooth. Reduce speed to low and sprinkle in a third of the cake flour, followed by a third of the pumpkin/milk mixture. Alternate between the two, allowing each addition to roughly incorporate before adding the next. Once batter is smooth, fold with a flexible spatula to ensure it’s well mixed from the bottom up. Divide between prepared cake pans, adding just about 27 ounces (756g) to each one.
Bake until cakes are well risen and firm to the touch, about 35 minutes or to 200°F (93°C). A toothpick inserted into the center will have a few crumbs still attached. Cool until no trace of warmth remains, about 2 hours due to the cakes’ thickness. Run a butter knife around edges to loosen, then invert cakes onto a wire rack, peel off parchment, and return cakes right side up. (Covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours.)
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full directions here) and set scraps aside for snacking. (These can also be crumbled into a batch of freshly churned buttermilk ice cream.) Place 1 layer on a heavy cast iron turntable; if you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with second layer, then cover sides of cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading it as smoothly as you can (watch our crumb-coating tutorial for more info). Refrigerate cake until buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes.
Re-whip remaining buttercream to restore its creamy consistency, then use to decorate chilled cake as desired; finish with a sprinkling of cinnamon and toasted pecans, if desired. Let cake return to cool room temperature before serving. Cut with a chef’s knife to serve and cover exposed edges with leftover buttercream to keep cake moist. Under a cake dome, the cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature.
Stand mixer, flexible spatula, two 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans (preferably 3 inches deep), serrated knife, offset spatula, cast iron turntable, wire rack
Potato flour is made from whole potatoes rather than their isolated starch, so the two can’t be used interchangeably; make sure to grab the right one! Potato flour is readily found in supermarkets like Kroger and Whole Foods, from brands like Bob’s Red Mill, or it can be purchased online. It truly makes a difference in the cake’s tenderness and loft.
- A Guide to Cake Frosting
- The World of Buttercreams: 6 Varieties to Try at Home
- How to Level a Layer Cake (No Toothpicks Required)
- How to Crumb-Coat a Layer Cake
- Pumpkin Skillet Coffee Cake With Streusel Topping Recipe
- Pumpkin Streusel Muffins Recipe