Fall seemed unwilling to visit our Kentucky hollow for many months, but finally gave us a few vibrantly colored leaves to photograph. We took advantage of some sunny, mild days to plant daffodils in the field by our new bridge, hoping we’ll see some new color in springtime. We’re of course anticipating what we’ll do with squash, apples and other harvest items. But we thought we’d bring in the season with an attempt to recreate pumpkin loaf in a layer cake.
Michelle’s mother’s version, based on an old Maida Heatter recipe, was the inspiration for this dense, moist cake studded with dates and walnuts. We saved our local squash for other recipes, using canned pumpkin along with ginger, nutmeg and other fall flavors. (Yeah, we know, that’s the ubiquitous and usually loathsome “pumpkin spice.”) Along with candied walnuts, a salted caramel icing lifted the cake to an even higher level than its humble loaf origins. We all (including our cat, Jeeves, who helped himself to a swath of icing while Michelle wasn’t looking) very much enjoyed this introduction to autumn goodness.
PUMPKIN-DATE-WALNUT CAKE WITH SALTED CARAMEL CREAM CHEESE ICING
ICING (and, yes, make this first):
- 1 c. granulated sugar
- 1/2 c. water
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
- 1-1/2 sticks (6 oz./12 TB) softened unsalted butter
- 2 TB heavy cream
- 1 lb. cream cheese, cut into 2” cubes
- 1/2 tsp. fleur de sel
Combine sugar, water, vanilla bean and seeds in a medium heavy saucepan. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Cook over medium heat without stirring until a medium-dark caramel forms, about 10-11 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately stir in the butter and cream. (Butter will separate. It doesn’t matter.) Remove and discard the vanilla bean.
Transfer caramel mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat at low speed for about 5 minutes, until the caramel cools slightly and comes together. With machine running, add cream cheese pieces one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add fleur de sel, then increase speed and beat until icing is smooth (it takes a while), cleaning sides occasionally with a rubber spatula. Cover and refrigerate for several hours until firm.
- 2 c. cake flour + more for the pans
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 c. Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
- 1 stick (4 oz./8 TB) softened unsalted butter + more for the pans
- 1 c. dark brown sugar
- 1/3 c. granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 c. buttermilk mixed with 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1-1/4 cups canned pumpkin purée
- 3/4 c. toasted walnuts, cooled and chopped
Preheat oven to 350° F with a rack in the center. Butter two 8” cake pans and line them with parchment or waxed paper circles cut to fit the bottoms. Butter the paper and coat the bottom and sides of pans with flour, tapping out excess.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Remove about a tablespoon of the flour mixture and toss with the chopped dates in a small bowl. Set both bowls aside.
Beat butter and sugars together a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Add eggs one at a time, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Then alternately add the flour and buttermilk mixtures, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Add pumpkin, beating just until it is incorporated and the batter is smooth. Stir in dates and nuts.
Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pans. Bang each pan against the counter to release any air bubbles. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
Cool in the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out. Then continue to fully cool on the rack.
Remove icing from refrigerator and let warm until spreadable. Ice the cake. Decorate top of cake with candied walnuts.