Chef Notes: Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake

Chef Notes: Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake

I have to admit I’m really not a dessert person. My taste runs strongly to the savory. Generally speaking, I’d rather have fried chicken than fried dough, gravy rather than fudge sauce, and yeast rolls over cake. However, this cake knocks my socks off.

The recipe is not mine. I was interning at Fine Cooking Magazine when it was developed. Their recipe calls for a traditional cream cheese frosting. I prefer to use a brown sugar cream cheese frosting. Feel free to switch it back if you prefer. I always do about four times the amount of nuts that the recipe calls for. I set the extras out on the bar for munchies. I made this for Thanksgiving last year and it was a huge hit. And by the way, I rarely go to the trouble of using fresh pumpkin. I use either canned or frozen. The only benefit I see in using fresh is to roast the seeds….but that’s another column. The cake is outstanding simply served with coffee but it is also great with a holiday flavored ice cream like eggnog or pumpkin spice.

Chef Notes: Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake


  • For the pumpkin purée
  • 2 tsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 medium-large Sugar Pie pumpkin, cut in half from stem to bottom and seeded (or use canned pumpkin puree or roast frozen pumpkin and puree)
  • For the cake
  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter; more for the pans
  • 9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for the pans
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk
  • For the topping
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cup unsalted, raw, hulled pepitas
  • 2 Tbs. firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. chopped crystallized ginger
  • For the frosting
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar


Make the pumpkin purée: 

Heat oven to 350. 

Ensure a rack is in the center. 

Brush a baking dish with the oil.

Put the pumpkin halves in the dish cut side down and bake until tender when pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes.

Let cool. Peel the pumpkin and purée the flesh in a food processor until smooth.

You’ll need 1-1/2 cups of the purée for the cake. Refrigerate or freeze any remaining purée for another use.

Make the cake: 

Heat the oven to 350°F. 

Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. 

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat.

Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown, about 4 minutes.

Pour into a small bowl and let cool but not set. 

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. In a large bowl, whisk 1-1/2 cups of the pumpkin purée with the granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and buttermilk until very well blended.

With a rubber spatula, stir in the flour mixture until just combined.

Gently whisk in the brown butter until completely incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. 

Bake the cakes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 28 minutes.

Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto racks and cool completely.

Make the topping: 

Melt the butter in large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat.

Add the pecans and pepitas and cook until the pecans brown slightly and the pepitas begin to pop, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle in the brown sugar and salt and stir until the sugar melts and the nuts are glazed, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the ginger.

Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool in the skillet.

Make the frosting: 

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat.

Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown, about 4 minutes.

Pour into a small bowl and let stand until the solids settle at the bottom of the bowl, about 5 minutes. In a large bowl, pour in the butter being careful not to add the browned solids at the bottom of the bowl; discard the solids. 

Add the cream cheese and brown sugar on with an electric mixer high until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Gradually add confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition.  

Transfer the bowl to the freezer and chill until just firm, about 18 minutes.

Assemble the cake: 

Put one cake layer on a cake plate.

Spread 1/2 cup of the frosting on the layer.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the nut mixture over the frosting and top with the second layer.

Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.

Arrange the remaining topping in a ring 1-1/2 inches in from the edge of the cake and serve


Make Ahead Tips:  You can make the purée up to 5 days ahead, just keep refrigerated.  You can make the nuts up to 2 days ahead, store in a sealed bag or container.  The assembled, frosted cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated for up to 2 days. But bring to room temperature before serving.


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