Smile Politely

Build the pumpkin coffee cake of your dreams

When I was young, Christmas at our house meant friends and family dropping by for coffee in the days leading up to and after “the big day.” My mom always had a stash of zucchini and cranberry bread and sour cream coffee cakes in the freezer for these occasions.

As a child I thought these visits were treats because of the baked goods. Of course I now know the real treat was for my parents to escape the hustle and bustle of the season with people they loved.  

This weekend, I made a pumpkin coffee cake and in a Field of Dreams sort of way, a couple of neighbors dropped by to share it.

Like the breads and cakes my mother made, this one is even better the next day. It also is forgiving: My husband was distracted by our kitten and neglected to add the yogurt with the rest of the wet ingredients. I added it after the flour with a few more spatula strokes and the cake was no worse for the wear.

You can leave the cake plain, sprinkle it with powdered sugar, or glaze it with a simple vanilla-powdered sugar glaze, or add Neufchatel or fresh goat cheese (chevre) to the glaze for something richer. Yes, chevre works just fine in desserts.

There are just enough black walnuts to be flavorful without being overpowering. If you don’t have them or don’t like them, you can substitute English walnuts, though the flavor will be different and you’ll need to use a few tablespoons more. The spice mix also is nice without being overpowering. The amounts are on the conservative side as they intensify as the cake sits, even overnight. If you don’t have all of them, you can get them from the bulk containers at Common Ground.

If you don’t have a standard 12-cup bundt pan, you can bake the batter in muffin tins for 15 minutes, or divide it between two loaf pans or use a 13 x 9 x 2 cake pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. When the cake springs back to the touch, it is done.

As with all cakes, make sure your oven is preheated before baking. We have a layer of inexpensive ceramic wood stove fire bricks on the bottom of our gas oven to help it bake evenly. They cost $20 to $30 for a box of six and make our oven perform like a brand new one instead of its early 1980s self. You can even bake pizza crust and naan directly on the bricks. Just make sure to avoid blocking any vents with the bricks.                       

 Pumpkin Coffee Cake

4 T butter, softened

1/2 c granulated white sugar

1/4 c packed brown sugar

2/3 c pumpkin puree

1/2 c yogurt, thinned to buttermilk consistency

2 eggs

2 T molasses

1 T bourbon or dark rum (optional)

2 c whole white wheat pastry flour or sub 2 c whole white wheat all purpose flour less 2 T, plus 2 T corn starch

1 t baking soda

1/2 t baking powder

3/4 t cinnamon

1/4 t ground nutmeg

1/4 t ground cardamom

1/4 t ground ginger

1/8 t ground cloves

1/4 t salt

3 T black walnuts, chopped, or use 1/3 c chopped English Walnuts

Top with powdered sugar for dusting, powdered sugar glaze, or sugar-cheese glaze. Recipes follow.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Thoroughly butter and flour cake or loaf pans. Seriously, slather the pans as there is nothing worse than leaving half the cake behind when you go to unmold it. Or, if you’re making muffins, place liners in a twelve-cup or two, six-cup regular muffin pans.

Cream butter with sugars. Combine pumpkin with yogurt, eggs, molasses, and bourbon, in a bowl stirring until frothy. Combine dry ingredients except nuts and stir together in another small bowl making sure to remove any lumps. Add liquids. Mix well. Add dry ingredients in 2 to 3 batches, until just combined. Stir in nuts. Quickly fill greased pan(s) or if using muffin tins fill 2/3 to 3/4 full of batter.

Bake muffins for 15 minutes, or oblong cake or loaf pans for 20 to 25 minutes, or bundt pan for 35 minutes. Cake(s) are done if they spring back when lightly touched. Remove from oven. Allow cake/loaf pans to cool for 15 minutes in pan(s) on a rack. Then invert to remove from pans to cool further.


You can eat the cake(s) plain warm. Or, for fuller flavor, allow them to cool completely and serve the next day. For a simple finish, simply dust with powdered sugar. Or, to glaze, combine:

1 T soft butter

1 c  to 1 1/3 c  powdered sugar

2 T hot water

1 T bourbon or use extra water

Start with 1 c sugar, add more for thicker glaze. Mix thoroughly. Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes and pour over cooled cake.

For sugar-cheese glaze, add 4 to 6 ounces of fresh goat cheese (chevre) or cow’s milk Neufchatel to the above until it is tangy and has the consistency of a cake batter. Pour over cake(s).

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