Celebrate Fall with a Slice of Pumpkin Cake

Exactly one year ago today, Tim and I were up in the Chicago suburbs, driving out to the DuPage County courthouse to lift up our hands and solemnly swear that we were who we said we were and get the nice lady in the sea of cubicles to hand us our marriage license, our marriage license! I remember walking out of that building, into the crowded parking lot, hand in hand with Tim and thinking, our marriage license! It’s official now! Not just in terms of a giant dress in the closet and a chalkboard seating chart, but, as in, according to the government, we’re actually about to do this thing. Three days from now, we’re getting hitched!

day before wedding | foodloveswriting.com

I know I’ve said this here before, but, seriously, there are so many more details involved with planning a wedding than I ever would have imagined, and, when you plan your wedding fast, like we did in six months, you learn to scrap a lot of those details in the name of staying sane—like a wedding cake maybe. We had pretty much ruled it out, thinking that there’d already be a full meal and a full spread of a cookie table, so who needed a cake?

My mom, that’s who.

Listen, she’d been a champ about a lot of wedding things she’d originally seen a different way: my not having a veil, my seeing Tim before the wedding, no little boxes of Jordan almonds. But the one thing she violently disagreed on was not having a wedding cake. Cake is tradition. Cake tastes good. Plus, and this is where she hit my soft spot, cakes are the thing my grandma used to make for weddings as a caterer. We have these amazing black-and-white photos of her tall, tiered versions, usually with one of those vintage bride-and-groom sets on top, and oh, you guys, I can’t tell you how much I wish she could have still been alive to make mine last October.


So we talked about it and we talked about it, and we agreed: the next best thing to having your grandma, the one who taught you how to bake and love food, make your wedding cake is having your mom, who fed you before you knew she was feeding you, do it, especially when your mom is the kind of person who takes such intense pleasure in being the one to provide a meal.

It would be my gift to her to have one, her gift to me to make it, and, in the process, everyone would have some cake.


So months beforehand, Mom tested pumpkin cake recipes, almost giving up the idea once or twice. Turns out there are several truly bad cake recipes out there in the world and, not every recipe translates into three or four tiers.

But come our wedding day, her work was a thing of beauty. And that afternoon, she let the caterers transport the tall, dark, spiced cake topped with homemade cream cheese frosting down to the tent. It was simple, like us, no frills or iced flowers, and it was sweet and, honestly, I liked it quite a lot—partly because it tasted good, mostly because she made it for me.

Last week, remembering that cake and the work Mom put into it, I emailed her and asked for the recipe.

cake topper | FoodLovesWriting.com

She sent ingredients.

Do you have directions, too? I wrote back.

She said cream the wet with sugar; mix the dry; combine it all.

Baking times? I wrote back. Size of pan? Oven temp?

And then the correspondence became a confusing, winding email chain of 9X13 pans and guessing on oven temperatures and the promise of a different, much better pumpkin cake recipe, which, if she had it to do over again, is the one she would have used for the wedding last year.

pumpkin trifle | foodloveswriting.com

She had me laughing, and frustrated, and aware that when I talk to her I am looking at my future, and so an hour or two later, there I was, mixing ingredients in the kitchen like my mother’s daughter who was her mother’s daughter, according to a recipe she got from a Chicago news reporter or a lady at her old church or somewhere else, it’s still unclear, pouring it all into a greased and floured rectangle pan, letting the warm and autumn smell of it fill our kitchen.

Pumpkin Trifle | FoodLovesWriting.com

I may not have wanted a wedding cake, but I’m glad we had one anyway, and I’m glad I made a version of it last week—moist and pumpkiny and wonderful layered with homemade whipped cream and nuts—so that when I looked at it, like I looked at my mom’s in a big white tent, I could think, heart full, that more than anything else?

pumpkin trifle | foodloveswriting.com

My grandma would have loved this.

Pumpkin Trifle
Makes a large bowlful of trifle or many individual ones; serves a crowd
I’ve had trifles on my mind ever since I attempted a paleo pumpkin bread a few weeks ago, found it too dry and ended up turning it into a trifle, which saved it, barely. If a dry pumpkin bread could be good in a trifle, imagine a moist pumpkin cake! I mean, really, what’s not to like about pumpkin cake layered with whipped cream, nuts and honey?

One 9X13 Pumpkin Cake (recipe below)
20 ounces (or more) heavy whipping cream
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
Cinnamon, for sprinkling

Bake pumpkin cake and cut into cubes; set aside. In a large bowl, whip heavy cream until light and fluffy, adding just enough honey to make it sweet (maybe 1-2 tablespoons). Then, in a large glass bowl, create your trifle layers: cake chunks, whipped cream, drizzles of honey, sprinkles of cinnamon, hazelnuts; repeat.

Pumpkin Cake
My mom says this recipe comes from her book, and before that from the grandmother of Chicago newscaster Marianne Childers, who, incidentally, my brother and I met at a gas station once (the reporter, not the grandmother). I think he got her autograph. Mom adds, however, that she got this exact same recipe years before any connection to Childers’ recipe, back when I was just a kid, from a lady at the church I grew up in. These details, coupled with the fact that we’ve adapted it to use einkorn flour and Sucanat and coconut oil, make me want to just say, “adapted from my mom,” and be done with it—but, let’s be honest, the women in my family wouldn’t do that and, also, this story’s better.

2 cups einkorn flour (or your favorite flour; to sub spelt or wheat, you *may* want to up the oil slightly)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups unrefined cane sugar (Sucanat)
1/2 cup coconut oil, brought to liquid state
2 cups pureed pumpkin or squash

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9 X 13 baking dish.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.

in separate, large bowl, lightly beat 4 eggs. Add then add sugar, coconut oil and pumpkin puree; mix together. Add dry ingredients to this wet mixture and combine well.

Pour mixture into pan, and place in oven for 30 to 40 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

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About Shanna Mallon

Shanna holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography, and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.

34 thoughts on “Celebrate Fall with a Slice of Pumpkin Cake

  1. Oh Shanna, my grandmother died earlier this week so this really resonates with me. Last weekend, she was asking my mother when I was going to get engaged and would she need to buy a new hat for the wedding. Obviously she’ll never see me get engaged or married now so I can imagine how hard it must have been for you. A lovely cake and a lovely post xo

    • Kathryn! Oh, my. I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Truly. So sorry. Sending you big hugs and comfort across the Internet.

  2. Your post are always wonderful, Shanna. The photograph of your grandmother is priceless, I love having treasures like that from my family’s past.

  3. Your posts never, ever fail to bring a smile to my face. I have exactly the same recipe conversations with my father, as I frustratingly try to get him to clearly articulate his wealth of indian recipes. i once asked him how much water I needed to add to the rice, and he said ‘one digit’s worth.’ What he meant was to put my finger in the bottom of the pan and then fill up water until the first line on my finger. I had to laugh with the absurdity of it! But it worked 🙂

  4. I’ve been thinking about you and Tim this month, and about your first anniversary, and how I actually can’t believe that it’s only been a year because it seems as though you guys have been together all along. That’s how good you two are. Also, love this line: “It would be my gift to her to have one, her gift to me to make it, and, in the process, everyone would have some cake.” And this story. It’s all so good. Happy anniversary weekend!

    • Jacqui. I actually thought of you when I wrote that sentence, how crazy is that!? I don’t even know why specifically, but seeing you mention it here makes me feel glad. I like to think it means you’re rubbing off on me. : )

  5. Love the story- happy anniversary! And I LOVE trifle. I’ve made many on purpose and many by accident when Bundt cakes don’t release properly 🙂 Pumpkin is one of my favorite cakes, for sure!

    • Tell me about it! My first trifle was the result of a spelt cake gone wrong. Thank heavens for the miracle of whipped cream!

  6. Your wedding cake was so pretty and sounds delicious – I’m definitely getting excited about all of the pumpkin and squash cooking to be done over the next few months!

  7. Oh my word! This is such a hilariously wonderful post! And, I cannot even believe it– my mom has ‘a book’ too! This post had me smiling and laughing. . .and wishing for some of that yummy dessert 🙂

  8. Very nice post, happy anniversary! Yes… inevitably, we are our mother’s daughters, aren’t we…
    I haven’t been a big fan of pumpkin desserts (I guess I only really know the mandatory thanksgiving pumpkin pie), but that trifle looks fantastic. I will have to give it a try.

  9. I loved this story. I am getting married in 2 weeks, and am not having a wedding cake. I had to convince my mother, as well as my future husband’s that we just aren’t “cake people”, whoever they are. I work in a cider mill bakery, from which my wedding pie (because I think we are actually, “pie people”), hot spiced cider, and caramel apple favors will be made, by myself, my wonderful 73 year old (grandmother-like) boss, and one of my very best friends (a bridesmaid, whom I met working at said bakery just a year ago). Weddings are full of more emotions that I have yet to even begin to wrap my head around. Although, above all, marriage is about the love two people share, we are sharing our love also with our families, and friends, who helped make us the people who the other loves so deeply. Your words are beautiful, as well as your wedding cake, that was made with love and emotion-which in my book, is better than any fancy bakery cake by a long shot! Have a lovely day, Shanna!!

    • Rachel, First of all, congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I am biased, but I feel October is the most perfect time for it. : ) Love your idea for pie instead of cake — my friend Jacqui of http://www.happyjackeats.com did that for her lakefront wedding in Michigan two Septembers ago, and it was so lovely.

  10. Happy anniversary! My husband and I were married October 13, 2007, and we had a grand cake with alternating layers of chocolate and strawberry cake. Our wedding was very simple and for me the reception was all about the cake, so it’s fun to read your story. How great that your mom made your cake!

  11. Happy anniversary, Shanna! What a sweet story! My mom and I have similar correspondences about recipes (her, sending bits and bobs of information, me, confused). I think it’s wonderful that she made your cake – a pumpkin one at that! I’m sure your grandma would have liked both the cake and the trifle 😉

  12. Happy Anniversary Shanna and Tim! Well, I love reading your posts and this one brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad that your Mom prevailed in making you a cake…and a pumpkin one at that. Wow, she gets big points in my book. This is a memory and there’s no price tag on that! …Last thing I’ll add…One of my favorite things about attending weddings (never a bride, always a bridesmaid 🙂 is THE CAKE! So, thank your Mom for me!

  13. I love that you had pumpkin cake at your wedding – so not the normal white cake 🙂
    And I truly love that your mom made it. After losing my mom in February, this post has me thinking back to all the wonderful things my mom did for my wedding (lots & lots of hugs & pep talks). Thanks for helping me remember happy times 🙂

    • MaryAnn, What a blessing to have had a mom like that and what a heartbreak to lose her. Tim’s mom died ten years ago; her birthday was yesterday; and your mom is someone you never stop missing.

  14. Soooo….I came here from the pizza page looking for more info on einkorn flour….but I didn’t see any details about that here. Curious. 🙂

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