I was on the hunt for canned pumpkin puree, and so far, it was not going well. After finding the shelf at my go-to grocery store completely cleared of the familiar orange cans, I drove across the street to another major grocer — and again, no luck. Despite the suburban perks of having a car and several large grocery stores within driving distance, a quick errand was turning into a multi-stop scavenger hunt (in the pouring rain, no less). By the time I entered the baking aisle at the third store, my feet were thoroughly soaked and I was peeved. I’d never been more relieved to see cans of pumpkin puree lining the shelf.
America’s collective obsession with everything pumpkin continues to baffle me (I get it, but I don’t get it). Though I’ve come around to appreciating its namesake pie, I’ve found many pumpkin-flavored treats a bit too moist, heavy on the spice, and/or one-dimensional and predictable. So why did I jump on the bandwagon and develop a pumpkin cake for this month’s column? Precisely because I wanted the challenge of creating a version that wasn’t dominated by spices, had a decently structured crumb, and worked in tandem with other flavors for greater nuance — in other words, a cake that would make my search for pumpkin puree worth it.
This pumpkin brown butter whiskey cake fits the bill and then some. During the development process, I deliberately chose to omit the usual cinnamon and spices, and turned to brown sugar and brown butter to channel the same warm, autumnal notes on a cleaner canvas. Instead of using liquified butter, the brown butter is refrigerated until it’s solidified and creamable (a technique I picked up from this recipe), which requires some planning ahead but results in a tighter crumb while maintaining the browned butter’s deep nutty flavor. Unlike other pumpkin-heavy recipes, this cake calls for just half a cup of puree — enough to impart the characteristic earthiness of pumpkin without monopolizing the overall flavor, and perfect for using up any leftover puree you may have in the fridge. Whiskey is the final piece that ties the dessert together, adding just the right amount of edge and depth to both the batter and whipped cream. (I’m a firm believer that sweets are better with a bit of booze; I have yet to be proven wrong.)
“Pumpkin brown butter whiskey cake” may be a mouthful, but with every bite, you’ll realize that each of these ingredients rightfully deserves a place in the recipe’s title. The cozy, subtle flavors play off one another to create a cake that exudes everything I love about fall without relying solely on pumpkin or the classic spices to carry the dish. Like many recipes I develop, this one-layer cake is versatile enough to be a treat to nibble on throughout the week (been there, done that) or a crowd-pleasing, seasonal dessert to share at the dinner table. Regardless of the occasion, I’ll be making it again and again — as long as I remember to keep canned pumpkin puree stocked in my pantry at all times.
Pumpkin Brown Butter Whiskey Cake Recipe
Makes one 8-inch round cake
For the cake:
½ cup (113 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup (140 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup (150 grams) light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
½ cup (120 grams) pure canned pumpkin puree
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon or whiskey (no need to use top-shelf liquor)
¼ cup whole milk, at room temperature
For the whiskey whipped cream:
¾ cup heavy whipping cream, cold
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon bourbon or whiskey
Pinch of kosher salt
For the topping:
Chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts work well), toasted coconut chips (like this one), or crushed gingersnaps
Step 1: Start by browning the butter: Cut the butter into rough chunks and melt in a small or medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking the butter, stirring with a rubber spatula as it foams, until it browns and smells nutty, about 5 to 7 minutes (be sure to stir constantly as the butter begins to brown). Immediately pour the butter, along with the browned bits, into a small heatproof bowl or measuring cup — it’s important to get it out of the pan quickly, or the solids will continue to darken and burn.
Step 2: Refrigerate the butter for 1 to 2 hours, until solidified but soft enough to cream. If your butter is too firm, remove it from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature until softened.
Step 3: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with a parchment round, and grease the parchment.
Step 4: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Step 5: Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the brown butter until smooth. Add the brown sugar and cream together until well-combined and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
Step 6: Beat in the egg until incorporated, then scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the pumpkin and vanilla and beat until combined. The mixture may look slightly curdled at this point, but will come together in the next step.
Step 7: Add half of the dry ingredients to the bowl and beat just until combined. Beat in the milk and 2 tablespoons of whiskey. Scrape down the bowl, then beat in the rest of the dry ingredients, taking care not to over-mix.
Step 8: Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Lightly drop the pan on the counter one or two times to get rid of any air pockets. Bake the cake for 28 to 32 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until it’s lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Step 9: Let the cake cool for 15 minutes, then gently run a small offset spatula around the edges to loosen. Carefully transfer the cake to a cooling rack.
Step 10: While the cake is cooling, make the whiskey whipped cream: Combine the heavy cream, powdered sugar, whiskey, and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Using an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream until medium-to-stiff peaks form and it holds its shape. Do not over-whip.
Step 11: When the cake is completely cool, spread the whipped cream on top. For a cleaner look, I like to run a small offset spatula around the top edge of the cake to create an even “wall” of cream and go back to gently smooth the top. Garnish with chopped nuts, coconut chips, or crushed gingersnaps.
Note: If you refrigerate the assembled cake (covered), allow it to soften at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before enjoying.
Joy Cho is a freelance writer, recipe developer, and pastry chef based in New York City.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep