Pumpkin Spice Cake, the Perfect Holiday Dessert (Sorry, Pie)

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Top video: Serious Eats Team. Crumb-coating video: Natalie Holt]

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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.

Whisking milk with pumpkin purée in a metal mixing bowl

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).

An open bag of potato flour, next to a small pinch bowl of potato flour

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.

A fork spearing a bite of pumpkin layer cake, next to a wedge of cake on a plate

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).

Overhead shot of sticks of butter, spices, sugar, baking powder, and potato flour in a metal bowl

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.

Collage of photos of creaming pumpkin cake batter: creaming butter and sugar until fluffy and pale, adding egg yolks, adding vanilla

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.

Collage of making batter for pumpkin cake: adding flour to stand mixer bowl, adding pumpkin purée, folding batter by hand with a spatula, transferring batter to cake pan

For maximal rise and minimal browning, I divide the batter between two eight- by three-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.

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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.

Close-up of finished pumpkin layer cake, frosted with cream cheese buttercream and topped with pecans and cinnamon

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.

A wedge of pumpkin layer cake with cream cheese buttercream, on a plate