The beauty of having a perfect chocolate cake recipe, as I do, is that it’s always there in the back of your memory, ready for any holiday, any event, any Wednesday evening you really need a piece of cake. It’s always tender, it’s always moist, it tastes refreshingly of cocoa but is not overly sweet. It is easy to make – 45 minutes from empty bowl to tins hot out of the oven if you’re organized, and its recipe is easily halved and quartered for when you want a single layer, and when you just need a 6-inch cake for you and somebody you’re willing to go halfsies with right out of the cake tin.
Because this recipe is so dependable, because it is so easy and so well loved I’ve learned the measurements by heart, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that it is magic. It’s delicious, it’s quick, it’s vegan (until you drape it in whipped cream), which also means it’s cheap. But most magically, it is easily modified in dozens of ways, and every time it seems to come out right. I’ve made it gluten-free, I’ve soaked it in liqueur, I’ve added coffee, I’ve used olive oil instead of vegetable oil, I’ve switched out the type of vinegar, I’ve turned it into cupcakes; somehow, it just always works.
Here, in the ultimate experiment, I added an entire cup of pumpkin puree without adjusting any of the other ingredient values, and it STILL WORKED. That shouldn’t be possible. Pumpkin is so wet that dumping in such a healthy portion of it should require some tweaking. But because this cake is magic, it produced more than two dozen deeply dark, tender, moist cupcakes within an hour and a half.
Though I usually fill and slather this cake in an unapologetically thick layer of whipped cream, for cupcakes, I wanted to play with the subtle pumpkin flavor by spiking the frosting with the spices of pumpkin pie. Cream cheese frosting is a perennial favorite of mine, though for some reason I always forget about it when I’m not addressing a carrot cake. Here, though, it works perfectly: the tang of the cream cheese prevents the frosting from getting too sweet too fast, and it can hold up to the strong flavors of the spices that get whipped in.
Plus, bonus, cream cheese frosting is easy to pipe because it remains nice and stiff, which means you end up with professional looking cupcakes you can impress your coworkers or your Thanksgiving guests with. You know, if you feel like sharing.
Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Spiced Cream Cheese Frosting
60-90 minutes (plus at least 30 minutes cooling time for cupcakes)
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
⅔ cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
2 cups cold water
16 ounces (2 packages) plain, full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
- Preheat the oven to 350F and spray or line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake wrappers. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. It turns a lovely pale pinkish color when the cocoa is fully integrated.
- In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, measure out the vegetable oil and stir in the vinegar and the vanilla. Carefully add the pumpkin puree and whisk together. Add to the dry ingredients and use the stand mixer or an electric handheld mixer to combine – it will form a wet, clumpy mess.
- With the mixer running on low, slowly add the 2 cups of cold water. As the batter loosens you’ll want to add no faster than a trickle lest the now suddenly deep, deep cocoa-brown batter splatters.
- Once all the water is added, continue mixing until well combined – at least a minute. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula to ensure no hidden pockets of dry ingredients.
- When the batter is fully mixed, scoop ⅓ cup into each cavity of your prepared muffin tin. I use an ice cream scoop that holds ⅓ cup and has one of those trigger pieces that sweeps across and cleans out the scoop – I highly recommend this. It’s very convenient.
- Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out with only a moist crumb or two. Cool in muffin tin for 5-10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining batter until all cupcakes are baked and cooled.
- To make the frosting, drop the cream cheese into a large bowl and beat well with an electric handheld mixer or the whisk attachment on a stand mixer. When the cream cheese is looking fluffy, scrape down the sides, add the room temperature butter, and beat again until mixture is thick and fluffy. Scrape down the sides, add the vanilla, and beat once more.
- Now, sift in the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well in between each addition. You will want to start with slow speed each time to avoid a powdered sugar cloud. Once you’ve hit the 2 cup mark, let the mixer run for 2-3 minutes until the frosting becomes very thick. Give it a taste to check for sweetness and texture. If it seems thick enough for your purposes, add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and you’re done (I found 2 cups was perfect in flavor and texture). If the frosting is not thick enough, add the remaining powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well, for additional stiffness. Then add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and prepare to frost the cupcakes.
- If you have a piping bag, fit it with a star shaped tip and use a rubber spatula to fill it halfway with frosting. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the bottom corner off a gallon sized zip-top freezer bag and slide in a star shaped tip (or just leave it open for a less defined swirl of frosting). Half fill with frosting. Use your fingers to gently smoosh the frosting toward the bottom of the bag. Twist the top (empty) half of the bag around two or three times.
- To frost the cupcakes, hold the filled half of the bag in your dominant hand and a cupcake in your other hand. Without touching the icing tip to the surface of the cupcake, squeeze the bag gently and move your hand in a clockwise circle, letting the frosting ooze out and create a curlicue of frosting on top of the cupcake. Repeat until all cupcakes are frosting, refilling the bag when needed. You’ll likely have some extra, which seems to me like a terribly good thing, and which apparently freezes quite well.
- Refrigerate cupcakes until ready to serve – they keep just fine overnight (and, in fact, were still moist and tender into day three).