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October 18, 2012

Pumpkin Spice Latte Cake: Browned Butter Pumpkin Cake with Vanilla Latte Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Doesn't it seem like pumpkin is everywhere? It's as though the clock strikes midnight on October first and all references to summer suddenly shift to pumpkin. Not only are pumpkins literally outside the door of every grocery store in town, they are downright trendy. There's a pumpkin flavored version of just about everything, including beer, Oreos, and even ravioli!


Even Facebook is not immune to all that is pumpkin. I read many a status update from friends proclaiming their delight in the imminent arrival of their most cherished fall beverage (queue the music!): the Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte. All the excitement was lost on me because up until a week ago, I had never tried this popular coffee drink. When a potential shortage of the pumpkin spice flavored syrup started making headlines, I couldn't understand how a coffee drink could be so popular.
My attitude changed last Thursday as I sat in my boyfriend's truck on a rainy afternoon, enjoying an impromptu, yet romantic twenty-minute mini-date. Waiting for me in the truck's cup-holder was a surprise pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. In that moment, as I sipped my first latte and listened to my boyfriend tell me about his morning, I understood instantly why they are so coveted.

Pumpkin = Love

Yup, it's that easy. You see, my theory is that for many Americans, the sweet, nutmeg-y, cinnamon-y, creamy pumpkiny deliciousness is instantly associated with the taste of pumpkin pie, a comfort food that transcends like none other. Pumpkin pie is served during the holidays which is associated with family, friends, happiness, memories, joy, warmth, snuggles, hugs, kisses, laughter, gifts, and the most important, love. See? Simple arithmetic.

Love in a cup, with a hint of caffeine, is pure genius. This got me thinking about the flavors in the latte and how easy it would be to translate them into a cake. I thought about this idea for a long time, as I like to do, experimenting with different flavor combinations of cake and frosting. Should I include allspice? Should the buttercream be a vehicle for the pumpkin? How pronounced should the coffee flavor be? Soon all my questions had answers and a recipe started to take shape. The cake that I had envisioned was cooling on my kitchen counter. The Swiss meringue buttercream was ready and waiting to be piped.

I was so excited to bring this cake into work for everyone to try and it did not disappoint. The reviews it received were overwhelmingly positive. The buttercream was lauded for its lightness and balanced sweetness. The cake was the true star as just about everyone who had a slice raved about how moist, fragrant, and flavorful it was. The spices I used in the cake, although assertive, complimented the pumpkin perfectly. A holy matrimony of cake, flavor and texture. It is now my new go-to pumpkin cake recipe. Finally, a Pumpkin Spice Latte you can eat wit a fork.

Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake Recipe adapted from FineCooking.com
Yield: 8-16 servings

1 1/2 cups pure canned pumpkin 
3/4 cup (or 6 ounces) unsalted butter; more for the pans
2 cups (or 9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for the pans
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg  
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon + 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

How to make browned butter

Cut up the unsalted butter into big chunks and melt in saucepan over medium heat. Don't increase the heat any higher, otherwise the butter will cook too quickly and burn. Cook, swirling from time to time. You'll soon see a layer of white foam on the surface. The color will change too, going from a yellow to a honey to a golden tan and throughout this process you'll hear it sizzle too, pop and snap. You should also see some dark specs at the bottom of the bowl (that was once the foam and are the super tasty parts). Around this time you'll start to notice a nutty aroma and once you smell that, that is your queue to remove the butter from the heat, swirl, swirl, swirl it around the pan to help cool it down and pour it into a metal bowl and let it sit about 15-30 minutes. (Don't do this step ahead of time as you don't want the butter to get so cool that it starts to congeal.)

Making the cake

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment and butter the parchment. (Please don't skip the parchment. I know it's tempting.)

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, all the spices, and the salt.

In a large bowl on a stand mixer, whisk the eggs and buttermilk together. Add both sugars and mix until everything is combined. Add pumpkin and mix for 2-3 minutes until very well blended.

By hand, stir in the flour mixture, a cup or so at a time, just until combined and you no longer see any pockets of flour. The batter may look lumpy. Gently whisk in half of the the brown butter, by hand, until completely incorporated and repeat with the other half of the butter. The batter will get thicker. Be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for 15 minutes and then switch their position around in the oven so ensure even baking. Set your timer for 5 more minutes and check to see how the cakes are doing. If the centers are still giggly, cook for 5 minutes more. Continue checking every 2-3 minutes until the centers are set and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cook time should be between 25-35 minutes, but keep and eye on them.

Let the cakes cool in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto racks, remove the parchment, and cool completely. Once they are completely cool, cover in plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you're ready to frost them. I'd wait at least an hour or more if you can. The colder they are the easier they will be work with. If you're in a hurry, put the cakes in the freezer until you're ready to frost.

Vanilla Latte Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Sweetapolita

Yield: about 5 cups

6 large fresh egg whites - don't use pasteurized egg whites, please
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter. Make sure the butter is slightly soft to the touch but is still cold on the inside.
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split & scraped OR 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved into 1 teaspoon boiling water*
Pinch or two of cinnamon (to taste)
Pinch of Kosher salt

Wipe the bowl of an electric mixer  and the whisk attachment with paper towel dipped in a little lemon juice to remove any trace of food or grease.

By hand, lightly whisk the eggs whites and sugar together over simmering water (not boiling) until a candy thermometer reaches 140F.  No candy thermometer? It is ready when the egg white mixture is very hot to the touch and you cannot feel any grains of sugar when you rub some of the egg mixture between your fingers. Note that this can take a solid 3-5 minutes so don't rush this step or get lazy with whisking.

Transfer the mixer bowl to the mixer and whip on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes.  The mixture will get thick and fluffy. Keep the mixture whisking until the bottom and sides of the mixer bowl is cool to the touch. If it's even a little bit warm, be patient and let the mixture cool all the way. Your mixer enjoys this type of workout. You can't over mix once you get to this step.

Once the bowl is cool to the touch, switch over to your paddle attachment, turn the mixture back up to medium speed and begin adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time. Don't blob it all in the bowl at once. Take your time, adding another pat of butter every few seconds, until it's all incorporated and the mixture gets a silky texture. Buttercream Troubleshooting
  • Lumpy texture? Your butter may be too cold.  Keep mixing. It will eventually even out and come together. 
  • Too runny? Your butter got too warm. Stop mixing and put the buttercream into the fridge or freezer to get cold. 
  • Still too runny? Add a few tablespoons of cold butter

Once you get the texture right, add the scrapped vanilla bean, the vanilla, and the espresso mixture*, salt, cinnamon and mix well.

*This gives the buttercream a very subtle espresso flavor. I did this on purpose because I wanted to emulate the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte as much as I could. If you want a more pronounced coffee flavor, feel free to double the amount of espresso power.

Cake Assembly
Chill the cake layers at least an hour or freeze for half-hour. It's best to let them sit and chill overnight. It also makes the cake easier to frost.  It's up to you though -- feel free to frost away without chillin'

The directions I'm about to provide are based on how I decorated this cake. No fear, my friend,  if you just want to frost this cake the way you always do, go for it. I promise it will still taste yummy no matter how you ultimately decide to assemble to cake.

Lay a few small pieces of parchment paper along the bottom of a cake board or platter, then put the cake on top. (You'll remove the paper later after you've frosted the cake. This will help keep your cake board or platter tidy). Put the cake on the board or a large plate. Put a generous very generous dollop of buttercream on the top of the cake, pushing out to the edge. Smooth it out as much as you can and put the layer in the freezer to firm up, about 5 minutes.

Take the cake out of the freezer, smooth out the buttercream as much as you can and put the top layer, top side down, on top of the first layer, even it out as much as you can. Take a small amount of buttercream and spread along the sides of the cake, filling in the gap between the layers. Use as little buttercream as you can to gently ice the outside of the cake so that you can still see the cake through it.

Slather a good layer of buttercream on the top of the cake, smoothing it out as best you can. Fill a pastry bag with buttercream that's fitted with an Ateco tip 117. With the thicker side of the tip down on the cake, slowly pipe out ribbons as you work your way around the outside border.  Continue this, adding a new concentric circle each time. I made 5 passes around the cake and then added a boarder using a small star tip (sorry, the tip I used doesn't have a number on it). Remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake board.

For the bottom of the cake, I used Ateco tip 99, which to me looks like a little mustache, but technically it's for making swag borders. I rested the tip against the cake board and make little 90 degree arches all the way around the cake.


  1. This cake just looks devine... I can never get enough of pumpkin, sweet or savoury. But as you mentioned it about what goes with the pumkin; the nutmeg & cinnamon spices always make autum so warming.

    Nom! x Laura

  2. I am sitting here, drooling, plotting my next free date to make this!! YUM!!!! You done good, girl!!

  3. It has only taken me roughly six weeks to find my idea of the perfect wedding cake - this is it! Thank you, thank you!

    1. Wow, Leah! That makes me so happy to hear that! I'm not sure what kind of wedding cake you have in mind but one things about this cake that I didn't mention is that it's very stable and would hold up well to stacking and carving (if necessary). Please be sure to share photos of your cake; I'd love to see it. Warmest wishes for your special day!

  4. I had to re-read the title of this post 3 times because I thought I was making it up in my head it sounded so delicious!! This will definitely be something I'm trying next weekend. Thanks for sharing!
    Fancy {No}Pants

    1. Please let me know how it turns out. You're in for a serious treat!

  5. Wow, that looks sooo delicious! xoxo

  6. Incredible. I don't do coffee so I've always wanted to try a recipe and replacing the coffee content with a shot of chai. This recipe might be perfect for that, all of a sudden my delicious cup of chai tea that I'm drinking at this very moment seems inadequate and a whole cake would be more appropriate. The picture of the icing on the beaters is torture, that's is WHY I bake, to lick beaters.

    1. Hi Megan! Yes, this recipe would work great for that although the amount of the espresso is so subtle that if I were you I'd just skip it. If you replaced it with chai you might find that it competes with the cake flavors which are very chai-y anyway.

      You're never too old to lick the beaters, that's for sure! My son always gets first dibs :) thanks for stopping by! :)

  7. I made this cake this weekend, but used my own cream cheese frosting (not a fan of coffee flavor)...it was for a 50th wedding anniversary party and was a HUGE hit. I tweaked the recipe a little by not using a fancy Kitchen-Aid mixer, and just mixed everything by hand, but it still turned out perfectly. I do recommend following Julia's tip of wrapping in plastic wrap and putting in the fridge before frosting. That made a huge difference in the texture of the cake and kept it SO moist and deelish. People were fighting for the leftovers at the end of the party!!! Thanks for sharing your baking brilliance Miss Julia!!!

  8. My daughter made this cake earlier this week. I have to tell you, this is the BEST pumpkin cake I've ever eaten. It is amazing! I normally share the cakes we make, but I'm not sure I will with this one. It's just way too good. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for letting me know. That makes me so happy!

  9. What gives the sides of the cake that pattern? Is that the brown butter?

    On first glance, I thought the side was a browned crepe.

    You have mad skills.

    1. Thank you!

      The sides of the cake are just that - the sides of the cake. I just very, very lightly kissed it with a thin layer of frosting. It was just enough to fill in some of the nooks and crannies so that you could see some contrast. I fell in love with the color of the cake and felt like it was a shame to cover it entirely.

      The frosting is what I call a Vanilla Latte Buttercream, though I can see how you'd think it looks like browned butter. It has vanilla bean flecks and espresso in it. Now all I can do is think of browned butter frosting... yummm....:)

  10. My youngest daughter made this on my birthday for me! It is divine!!


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