Pumpkin Cake Bars
When I was a small(ish) child… maybe just 10 or 11 years old, I learned a valuable lesson: too much of a good thing is generally a bad thing. Now I will tell you that perhaps just 3 or 4 hours after learning this lesson… I promptly forgot it. Sure I learned it again the next time I had too much of a good thing, but soon after that… yep… forgot. This is a pattern I have repeated my entire life and at this point I have just learned to live with that. Let me explain…
Back was I was a kid our family didn’t really go to many places as a group. Once, my dad packed everybody into the station wagon along with some snacks and some blankets and drove us to the drive-in movie theater. I don’t remember what the movie was (it might have been “Ben-Hur”) but I would be willing to bet that about halfway through the movie he regretted his decision to bring us at all. Another time he took everyone to a regular movie theatre to see “The Ten Commandments” and around intermission… yeah that’s right there was an intermission… he was probably regretting this trip as well. In fact, I have no memory after “The Ten Commandments” of my dad ever taking us to the movies again. About the only time our family, as a whole, went anywhere was if we were traveling to see my dad’s brothers or sisters, who lived several hours south.
On those trips we would again pack ourselves into the station wagon and head off down the road early in the morning. Along the way we would pull into Dupar’s Restaurant to have something to eat. I am sure this was the last thing he really wanted to do but he did, after all, have an obligation to feed us. On one specific occasion, obviously triggered by the last time we visited Dupar’s, my dad announced to the family (probably me specifically), before we got out of the car… “NO Dessert”. When we were seated and the waitress came to ask for our order, I simple told her… “Dad says we’re not allowed to have any dessert”. I don’t remember if we ever stopped there again, after that.
Anyway, about the only other time the family went anywhere, as a group, was on the rare occasion when we went to a local restaurant. Once such place was an all-you-can-eat buffet called “The Chuck Wagon”. This was where I learned my “too much” lesson for the first time. The food at the Chuck Wagon was basic dinner fare; fried chicken, baked chicken, some kind of fish, a few different kinds of potatoes, stuffing, and several different steamed vegetables… along with all the “fixen’s” - like gravy and rolls and salads. I think they even had spaghetti and meatballs but I might be wrong about that. So you grabbed a plate and went down the line choosing everything and anything you wanted to eat and then trundled back to your table where you ate as fast as you could so that you could grab another plate and go back for more, you know… standard buffet protocol. For me, I always had my eye on the dessert side of the buffet (shocker, huh?) and on this occasion after eating my plate(s) of regular food, I grabbed a new plate and headed over for dessert. On this night the thing that caught my eye was a beautiful ring of bright green, lime Jell-O. It had obviously just been unmolded and placed on the buffet. It was still intact and the fresh fruit piled into the center of the ring was topped with just a dollop of whipped cream. It glistened and sparkled in the light and called to me like the Sirens called to Odysseus.
I grabbed the spoon that was resting nearby and scooped, (what I thought to be), a modest portion of Jell-O. On the way back to the table though an odd thing happened; the small, modest sized scoop I had taken inexplicably started to expand - and it grew to almost twice – maybe even three (or four) times the size. At least that was what I said when I got back to the table where everyone was flabbergasted at how much I had taken. Clearly I would not have taken too much; it must have grown while it was on the plate. “Not to worry... I can eat it all”, I said… and I did. I ate every last bite. And I will admit, there was a lot of it. When we were all finished and it was time to go everyone got up from the table and just before we left, I reached over to my glass of water that had remained untouched during the meal, and I drank it down in one very long gulp. Setting the glass back on the table I left the restaurant, trailing behind the rest of the family, moving somewhat slower than normal.
When we got to the car I was already not feeling well. I was so full it felt like my stomach was going to explode. My parents had to put down the back seat of the station wagon so I could lie flat out, moaning in agony, the whole way home. Everyone told me I shouldn’t have taken so much Jell-O; everyone said not to eat it all; everyone said it was my own fault I felt bad. At home, all I could do was go to bed and wait for the pain to go away. By the next day, my stomach felt better and… well… I forgot all about that little life lesson… that is until the next time we went out to eat and the next time I had to lie down in the back of the car on the way home.
Another place that always got me was The Sizzler restaurant. They had an all-you-can-eat taco bar and an all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream bar. Let me tell you I can eat a lot of tacos and I can eat a lot of ice cream… the problem is when I do both at the same meal. And even as an adult I have been known to order two desserts at a restaurant after a meal, simply because I can’t choose which one I want more, and when we leave I say to David, “don’t let me do that again”. At the local hamburger joint we frequent, I will order a cheeseburger, onion rings and a drink and then after the meal I go back and get a milk-shake and again, when I’m finished with that - I am bloated beyond belief. Over and over again, I learn this lesson of “too much”, but over and over again I do it and for a few hours I am absolutely miserable. Will I change? Probably not, but maybe the best thing about food is… it always digests, and then you can have more.
Now, as autumn is really starting to set in (for most of us) one of the things that you might have too much of is pumpkin spice. It seems like it’s added to everything these days. Pumpkin spice doughnuts, pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin spice scones, pumpkin spice chai lattes, pancakes, waffles, bagels, cinnamon rolls (I’ll dig out my recipe for those soon), even ice cream, and that’s just the ones I can think of right now. The thing is, I’m sort of okay with all this because it really only happens for a few months each year and then we move on to other things… like peppermint. So in the spirit of fall and everything that is pumpkin flavored, I thought it might be nice to share with you these pumpkin cake bars that King Arthur Flour has posted on their website. A somewhat thin pumpkin flavored cake topped with (our favorite) cream cheese icing. The cake has walnuts and golden raisins and all those fall spices like cinnamon and ginger and cloves (oh my). Basically, this is a carrot cake without carrots but pumpkin instead. These are very good and very easy to put together. You will need a rimmed half-sheet pan (18 x 13-inch), an electric mixer, and a kitchen scale. For those of you without all of those things, there are options for a 9 x 13-inch version and you can also get the ingredients by volume as well as read other bakers tips by using this link to see the original recipe on the King Arthur Flour website. I like these bars for a number of reasons, but the best thing about them is that I can eat at least two pieces and not feel like I have had too much.
So… Let’s make some cake bars
Special equipment needed:
18 x 13-inch standard half sheet pan
For the cake
Non-stick baking spray (for greasing the pan)
7 ounces vegetable oil
7½ ounces brown sugar
3½ ounces granulated sugar
4 large eggs
9½ ounces pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
8½ ounces all-purpose flour
2 ounces toasted chopped walnuts (see Note below)
6 ounces golden raisins
For the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1⅜ ounces maple syrup
10 ounces confectioner’s sugar, sifted
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 ounces toasted walnut pieces (see Note below)
Preheat your oven to 350°F with the rack in the center position.
Line a standard half-sheet pan (18 x 13-inch) with a piece of parchment paper and spray the parchment and sides of pan with non-stick baking spray.
For the cake
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat together the oil, brown sugar, and the granulated sugar until they are well blended.
Beat in the eggs until combined then beat in the pumpkin puree.
Next, with the mixer on low, stir in the baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves until everything is distributed evenly.
Now, using a large wooden spoon (or rubber spatula) stir in the flour, just until it is combined. If your still using the mixer, again use the lowest setting to beat the flour in gently.
Finally, fold in the nuts and raisins.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared sheet pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
When done, cool the cake, in the pan, on a wire rack.
For the Frosting
In a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese and the butter until no lumps remain.
Mix in the maple syrup.
Beat in the confectioners’ sugar, and the salt starting on low speed and gradually increasing the speed to high until the frosting is nicely spreadable. Adjust the consistency to your liking by adding either more sugar, or more maple syrup.
Frost the bars and sprinkle the toasted walnut pieces over the top and allow the frosting to set before cutting the cake into bars, squares, circles, triangles, octagons, trapezoids… or whatever shape you like. Alternately cut the cake into bars first and then frost each bar individually with a small offset spatula, or from a piping bag.
To toast walnuts - spread pieces in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 350°F oven for about 8 to 10 minutes, just until you can start to smell them, cool, then use as needed.