Holiday Desserts: Pumpkin Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Walnuts

Pumpkin Cake 2

Pumpkin cake, covered with cream cheese frosting and candied walnuts. Trust me, it looks messy, but it tasted great.

You know on Project Runway how the judges criticize the designers for “over-thinking it?” Like, a designer thinks so hard about their “statement” that they end up sending something down the runway covered with ruffles and bows and leather that’s really forced?

Well, I totally do that with desserts.

For me, when I know I’m going to a party, and I really want to bring something great, I’ll spend hours thinking about it. Cake, pie, chocolate, fruit, cream, frosting – there are just so combinations of deliciousness. But when it comes time to actually bake, I’m so paralyzed by thinking about all my options that I can’t decide.

This pumpkin cake was a dessert I ended up making because I couldn’t make up my mind. It was Thanksgiving morning, I had overslept, I had a couple hours before I had to leave for my Thanksgiving potluck, and I still couldn’t make a decision. “Fine – fine,” I thought. “I’m just going to make a pumpkin something.”

I randomly chose a pumpkin cake recipe that I had all the ingredients for. I topped it with cream cheese frosting, but with half the amount of cream cheese the recipe called for, since that’s all I had. And, since I wanted a decoration, I candied some walnuts, ground them in the food processor, and patted them onto the cake.

It may have been a cake borne out of necessity, but I got lucky. It was fantastic. Well, actually, the cake itself was just okay – I found it a little bland. Next time I might spice it up fresh ginger or rum or something to give it a little pep.

But, man, the frosting? Fantastic. It was a random stroke of luck, but the halving the amount of cream cheese made the frosting incredibly light and creamy – the cream cheese was more of a tangy undernote than the main flavor. It actually reminded me of the vanilla frosting of Georgetown Cupcake, which has a slight tang I always suspected was cream cheese.

And the candied walnuts? Also fantastic. In fact, it was the combination of the crunchy, salty-sweet walnuts with the creamy, tangy frosting that was the reason this cake was so good.

Even though it was a last minute decision, the cake was still a hit at the Thanksgiving party. Next time I just may want to start it in advance, since the presentation was a bit, shall we say, slapped together. But, as Tim Gunn says, I made it work.

Pumpkin Cake 3

A slice of cake. Man, that bottom layer is way smaller than that top layer.

Pumpkin Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Walnuts

For the walnuts:
2 cups shelled walnuts
2 tbs light corn syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbs salted butter

Line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Combine walnuts, corn syrup, brown sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Heat butter over medium heat. Saute walnut mixture until the coating begins to caramelize and turn a deep brown. Immediately remove from heat and spread walnuts on the parchment paper. Let cool. Pulse in a food processor until the nuts are broken into small pieces. Set aside.

For the pumpkin cake:
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup canned solid pack pumpkin

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom of two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of the pans with parchment paper; then butter and flour the pans.

Sift flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and cloves into medium bowl; sift again.

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions. Beat in pumpkin. Divide batter equally between prepared pans (batter will be about 3/4 inch deep).

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks; peel off waxed paper. Cool completely.

For the cream cheese frosting:
1 8-ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Add powdered and vanilla, and sugar and beat until light and fluffy.

Assembling the cake:

Place one cake layer on a serving tray. While you’re frosting the cake, it’s best to protect the tray with small slips of wax or parchment paper that you slide just underneath the cake layer. Spread the layer with a good 1/2 inch of frosting. Top with the second layer. Cover top and sides of cake with remaining frosting, smoothing with an offset spatula. Gently pat walnuts onto the top and sides of cake. Remove wax or parchment strips. Serve at room temperature.



  1. You always make it work! Ahh Tim.

    Good to know someone also has potluck anxiety. It’s like when you and I actually have to decide on a restaurant to go to!

    • moderndomestic said

      Oh, I know! We spend all this time thinking about where to go, and then we just go to the same places. At least we’re tracking all the different places we want to go now.

      I wonder if potluck anxiety is a common for aspiring home cooks . . . hmmm . . .

  2. Ashley said

    For me, the frosting makes the cake. Yours looks scrumptious.

  3. Rebecca said

    Wow. That looks amazing. When can we expect to see Mastering the Art of American Baking by Modern Domestic hitting the shelves?

  4. lemmonex said

    I can get behind ANYTHING with a cream cheese frosting. Looks great.

  5. Phil said

    The bottom layer being smaller than the top isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe you can experiment with a thinner bottom layer that is denser and has a more intense or different flavor than the top layer and come up with some new cake recipes!

    Yes, I have the same potluck and restaurant anxieties. I don’t always want to make something complicated, but I do find myself wanting to make something new. There are usually unforeseen problems that I have to work through and I end up wondering why I didn’t make something more familiar. I try to make deciding on a restaurant easier by having an ever-growing list of places I’d like to try on my computer that is organized by their locations.

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