There are so many cooking supplies that I’ve learned to live without in England (cake flour, kosher salt, corn syrup, molasses, proper marshmallows and graham crackers to name but a few), but I’m pleased to report that Libby’s canned pumpkin is not one of them. Somehow, Libby’s has made it across the pond in spades and I am currently able to buy it one can at a time without fear of it falling off the shelves inexplicably and sans any sort of notice (why, yes, I am still traumatized by the removal of Skippy’s from the shelves of Waitrose and now hoard it in batches of seven or more wherever I can find it). And although I applaud anyone who makes their own pumpkin puree, there is something so nostalgic for me in that little Libby’s can that I just can’t give it up. It instantly reminds me of Autumn at home as a child, helping my mother prepare pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or pumpkin cheesecake for Halloween or…pretty much any dessert including pumpkin. I wouldn’t want to bake during this time of year without it.
This cake was prepared during one such fit of nostalgia, when I woke up on a rainy Sunday morning to watch my brother run in the ING New York City Marathon on a tiny computer feed. I used to live minutes from the finish line in Central Park and would march down each year to cheer on the runners, always wishing I could see FDW among them. My brother, never one to shy away from pain or athletic feats (how unlike his sister), has run many a marathon, but it was NY that always eluded him. That was until he finally achieved a qualifying time and was automatically cleared for entry this and any year in the future. You can’t imagine just how thrilled I was for him and yet how crushed I was at the same time to know I wouldn’t be there to see it in person. It’s such a give and take, this European adventure of mine – one weekend I’m walking through Amsterdam, thrilled at all the opportunities I’ve had to travel over the past few years and the next I’m so fiercely wishing I was home I can’t see straight. That’s where this cake came in: baking, as it so often does, became a way for me to escape on Sunday, to clear my mind of worry for FDW’s run and sadness at my inability to be standing at the finish line, banging pots and pans and cowbells (I’m sure the other spectators are thankful I wasn’t there, come to think of it). I dragged the computer down to the kitchen on Sunday afternoon, still sleepy from staying up half the night to watch the Yankee game (another downside of the cross-continental divide), and watched my brother’s little tracker move from mile to mile, over the Verrazano, through Park Slope, up First Avenue and all the way to the park, while I baked and ate this delicious pumpkin cake. It was simply enough to prepare while simultaneously tracking one runner in a sea of thousands, but the brown butter icing and caramelized pecans (I didn’t have walnuts, but prefer pecans in any event) gave it a sophisticated taste that made me feel like it should have taken much longer to bake and assemble. The combination of the pecans and the thin layer of brown butter icing is a success in itself, so much so that I’ve taken to saving that bit of each slice for last. That combination, coupled with an incredibly moist yet subtle pumpkin base, made this cake an Autumn dessert worthy of being added to my permanent Libby’s line-up. It also officially sold King H on brown butter for life. He was astounded by its nutty taste, as am I nearly every time I make it.
It defies logic to think that a pumpkin cake made for someone while they were running a marathon, a cake they would never even get to eat, would spur them on and entice them, too, but I’d like to think FDW would have been pleased to think of me baking away while he ran his heart out. It’s the way it’s always been in our family, the way I remember it, and the way I hope it will be the next time he’s running on the first Sunday of November, when I’m standing there banging my pots and pans like a loon. So here’s to FDW, the boy who bonked and still reached the finish line in three hours – I’ll eat to that.
Pumpkin Cake with Brown Butter Icing
(adapted from Martha Stewart)
For the cake:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup homemade Pumpkin Puree, or canned
1/2 cup warm (110 degrees Fahrenheit) milk
For the icing:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
For the caramelized walnut/pecan halves:1/2 cup sugar
10 well-shaped, large walnut or pecan halves
Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9-by-2-inch round cake pan. Line pan with parchment, and butter the parchment. Coat pan with flour, and tap out any excess.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat sugar and butter together until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, and beat until combined. Add pumpkin puree and milk; beat until combined. Add reserved flour mixture; beat on low speed until just combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool. Let cake rest 20 minutes.
In a small skillet, melt sugar over medium-high heat until medium golden, about 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Working quickly, drop walnut halves, one at a time, into the melted sugar. If the sugar hardens, return skillet to low heat, and stir several minutes. Using a fork, turn walnuts until they are evenly coated. Transfer walnuts to a wire rack to cool completely.
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until nut-brown in color, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and pour butter into a bowl, leaving any burned sediment behind.
Add sugar, vanilla, and 1 tablespoon milk; stir until smooth. If the icing is too thick, add the remaining tablespoon milk, a little at a time, until consistency is spreadable. Let cool 5 minutes.
Unmold cake. Using an offset spatula, spread icing over top of cake, and decorate with caramelized walnut or pecan halves.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.