Every fall, I make a pumpkin spice layer cake, and this is the recipe that never fails me. It’s a high altitude tested recipe for the most incredible Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Buttercream.
Sometimes, I make this recipe in the form of my Thanksgiving Pumpkin Cake. And one year, I left the cake naked with pretty swirls of cream cheese frosting between each layer (you can see those photos below, for those of you who found this post through an old photo on Pinterest). This is the same delicious recipe, but with a pretty facelift and a new set of photos. And while I know it’s a bit early in the season for fall recipes, I’m sharing this one early so you can be sure to have time to plan your baking for Halloween and Thanksgiving.
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Making Brown Butter
I absolutely love using brown butter (or browned butter) in baking. It’s fantastic in these Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies (my personal favorite of all the cookies). The brown butter frosting on my Toasted Sugar Vanilla Cake is to die for. And I couldn’t stop eating these Strawberry Cardamom Crumb Bars with brown butter in the crust and topping. It’s an ingredient I use quite often.
Making brown butter is as easy as just melting butter on the stove. After melting the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, continue to cook the butter, not stirring, but just swirling the pan occasionally. This process will let some of the water evaporate while browning the milk solids on the bottom of the pan. It’s very fragrant with a nutty, toasted aroma, and a richer flavor than melted or clarified butter.
Throughout the process, which might take 10 minutes or so, the butter will go through several stages. It will splatter and hiss a bit as the water evaporates. Then it will quiet down, and a layer of foam will form on top of the melted butter. At this point, you’ll know it’s nearly ready. If you swirl the pan to see the bottom, you’ll see golden brown solids that have formed at the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat, and immediately use a spatula or spoon to scrape the solids from the bottom of the pan so they don’t stick. Some people strain out the solids, but I use all of it. It has the most incredible flavor. The brown butter is now ready to be used in my brown butter pumpkin cake.
Making High Altitude Pumpkin Cake
This pumpkin layer cake recipe uses the easiest of all cake making techniques. The dry ingredients and liquid ingredients are combined separately, and then whisked together. That’s all it takes to make the batter.
The cake is so soft, so moist, tender and fluffy, with a velvety crumb. With the cream cheese buttercream, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. My dad even once told me when I brought this cake to their house for Thanksgiving, that it was the best cake he’d ever had in his life!
Brown Butter. Besides flavor, the brown butter adds moisture and richness to the cake.
Pumpkin. You’ll need plain canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling. I’ve also made this cake using my own homemade pumpkin puree, which I made after roasting a few pie pumpkins. It turned out great! Expect the color to be more yellow than orange if you use homemade pumpkin puree.
Sugar. I’ve tested this cake recipe with dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, and a combination of both brown sugar and granulated sugar. Honestly, it works out well every time! I’ve written the recipe below to use both, but know that you can use just brown sugar with great results.
Eggs. The eggs add structure and richness to the cake.
Buttermilk. I love baking with buttermilk, and I use it in everything from waffles to muffins to cakes. It adds moisture, flavor and acidity, which helps with the rise of the cake.
Vanilla. For a double dose of vanilla, there’s vanilla extract in the cake, and vanilla bean in the buttercream.
Flour. Most of the time, I use all-purpose flour in my high altitude pumpkin cake. I have used cake flour on occasion, and it makes the cake a little lighter, but it’s great either way.
Baking Soda. The baking soda reacts with the acid in the buttermilk and pumpkin to leaven the cake.
Salt + Spices. So, you’ll never see “pumpkin pie spice” listed as an ingredient in my pumpkin recipes. If you have it, though, use it! But I like to add my spices separately. Salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg give this cake amazing flavor that perfectly complements the pumpkin.
Photos of my original naked pumpkin cake
Cream Cheese Frosting
Can we all agree that cream cheese frosting is one of the best things in life? It’s creamy, sweet and tangy, and goes so perfectly with red velvet cake, carrot cake, and yes, pumpkin cake, too.
If you haven’t read my post on Perfect American Buttercream, please do! It’s a comprehensive guide on making buttercream, along with recipe variations and tips on troubleshooting common problems.
To make cream cheese frosting for a layer cake, you need to use half butter and half cream cheese, for a cream cheese buttercream. Cream cheese is very soft, and the frosting has a tendency to become very soft, thin and runny when the wrong proportions of ingredients are used. But when combined with butter (and of course, powdered sugar), it becomes more stable and firm, and is perfectly suited for frosting a layer cake without fear of it sliding off.
I recently bought a pack of 10 Tahitian Vanilla Beans on Amazon that were surprisingly inexpensive, and I used the first one in this buttercream. Do you see those little black specks? That’s vanilla bean gold, and the flavor is simply wonderful. After using the seeds, I also save and dry the pod, then grind it up with my spice grinder to use the ground vanilla bean in baked goods, too.
Decorating Your Pumpkin Spice Cake
Okay, let’s talk about how I decorated this cake! It’s so easy to pipe the pumpkins on the side of the cake using Wilton Tip 1M and a little leftover buttercream. This is my favorite piping tip, because it does so many different things from ruffles to swirls to rosettes to pumpkins! I have 3-4 of these tips, because I use them so often.
Then I switched to a small round tip to pipe the curly vines and the stems. I think those vines really make the design. I thought about tinting the buttercream orange for the pumpkins, but in the end, I loved the look of the all white, and I’m glad I didn’t use food coloring.
Lastly, I finished the buttercream pumpkin design with little candy leaves. Now, you may have noticed in one of the photos above that the leaves are green, but black in all the other photos. They actually are little green candy holly leaves from a Christmas Sprinkle Mix I have. While editing the photos, I decided to bump down the green saturation, and I really loved the look of black leaves. I thought it gave the cake more of a Halloween and Thanksgiving vibe, rather than Christmas. The green leaves still look super cute, though. And if you like the black, you can always use a leaf tip to pipe black buttercream leaves.
I hope you add this high altitude pumpkin cake to your baking lineup this fall, and if you do, please tag me on Instagram, so I can see your creation!
Other High Altitude Pumpkin Cakes and Pumpkin Recipes
Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake
- Stand Mixer
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1 can (15 oz) pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
- ½ cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- ½ cup whole buttermilk
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 cups + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 ¼ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ginger
- ½ tsp cloves
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 8 oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 8 oz (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 5 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp meringue powder, optional
- ⅛ tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped (or 2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste)
- 2-4 tbsp milk or cream, only if needed
- Preheat the oven to 350, and spray the bottoms of three 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to cook the butter, swirling the pan occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the water has evaporated, and the butter is forming nutty, fragrant golden brown solids at the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and let the butter cool for 10 minutes.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, buttermilk and vanilla. Whisk in the browned butter.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and whisk for about 30 seconds until smooth.
- Divide the batter between the pans. Bake the cakes on the center oven rack for about 22 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
- Set the pans on a wire cooling rack, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel, and cool completely before frosting.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter for one minute.
- With the mixer on low, add the powdered sugar, meringue powder, salt and vanilla bean seeds. Increase speed to medium, and whip for 3-4 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally, until light and fluffy. Only add the milk or cream if needed for desired consistency, but you don't want to add much liquid to cream cheese buttercream, or it will become too soft to hold its shape on a layer cake.
- Remove the cooled cakes from the pans. Fill, frost and stack the cakes, then frost all over with a thin crumb coat of buttercream. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes, then finish frosting all over with a final coat of buttercream.