Spiced Pumpkin Sour Cream Upside-Down Coffee Cake

I planned to post Friday night, so that you could have the pleasure of baking this cake over the weekend and perhaps serving to family or friends, but mea culpa, mea culpa, the texture of the cake was not responding to my tender-loving intention and attention. It was okay but not memorable. And who wants to spend a weekend morning baking a just okay cake? Not me and certainly not you. Weekends are for spectacular baking, and I wanted this cake to be just that.

Thus, Saturday morning, I was up early baking the fourth attempt, after creating a recipe grid comparing the ingredient proportions of dozens of pumpkin cake renditions from reliable sources (A Passion for Dessertsby Emily Luchetti, Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan, The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes from the Texas Hill Country’s Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe by Rebecca Rather, and Baking with Julia Savor the Joys of Baking with America’s Best Bakers by Julia Child, to name a few, plus every version of “vegetable” cake, bread, and coffee cake I have ever created. (Perhaps I should mention that I have created hundreds of cake recipes over my culinary career, especially during the years that I was a freelance writer for Cooking Light Magazine and Oxmoor House Publications. For some reason, they liked to throw me the dessert assignments. Thus, the difficulty getting this particular cake right caught me by surprise.)

The texture I was aiming for is open, moist, tender and not too dense. The addition of solid pack pumpkin tends to produce a dense cake, so the amount has to be moderated to allow the pumpkin flavor to come through, without weighing down the structure of the cake. (In my early attempts, I added too much.) I started testing using oil, hoping for a fast and easy muffin-method quick bread but after tasting a couple of renditions, moved to butter and the creaming method, which is more typical for cakes. It’s hard to beat the taste of unsalted butter.

I created a version using a small amount of molasses, which was delicious, but the pumpkin flavor was obliterated, so that went into the “develop later” recipe folder. Because I began this exploration with the idea of pumpkin with sour cream, I stayed with sour cream throughout the testing, although other acidic dairy products, such as buttermilk or yogurt, should also work here. The spicing is traditional pumpkin pie-with vanilla, orange, and fresh ginger added for good measure.

I did achieve, finally, a proper balance between the flour, sugar, eggs, fat, and total liquid (including the pumpkin), in large part due to the ratios so clearly presented in Shirley Corriher’s inestimable contribution to the world of fine baking, BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes.

Thus, this cake now has a wonderful texture. As the final step, to take the flavor over the top, I added the cranberry and hazelnut topping, which is Delicious with a capitol D. You really have to make this cake. Yes. You. Soon. Make this cake.

Oh gosh, I haven’t even mentioned the Spiced Apple Cider Caramel Sauce, which now has a post of its own. I made a double batch last week and am now pouring it over everything. Don’t you just love Fall?

Spiced Pumpkin Sour Cream Upside-Down Cake with Caramelized Cranberry Hazelnut Topping and Orange Cream

A wonderfully moist, tender, open-textured coffee cake with a baked-in topping of caramelized cranberries and hazelnuts. The entire cake is redolent with warm spices, fresh ginger, and orange. This cake stays moist for days if covered tightly with plastic wrap. It is unlikely to last that long, however.

Cranberry Hazelnut Topping
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups fresh, whole cranberries (if frozen, thaw)
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped

Pumpkin Cake
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons nutmeg
1½ teaspoons allspice
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
finely grated zest of 1 large orange
1 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup whole milk
½ cup unsalted butter, cool room temperature
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs, cool room temperature, lightly beaten
1 scant cup pumpkin puree (½ 15-ounce can)
1½ teaspoons vanilla

Spiced Apple Cider Caramel Sauce
Orange Cream (recipe below)
coarsely grated zest of orange

1. Butter and lightly flour ( or spray with an oil plus flour baking spray) a 10-inch diameter, 3-inch deep, 10- to 12-cup capacity, nonstick, plain (no decorative shaping) coffee cake pan. (NordicWare makes this baking pan.)
2. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat oven to 350°.
3. To make the topping, in a medium mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, brown sugar, cranberries and hazelnuts. Spoon into the bottom of the coffee cake pan and use a flexible spatula to distribute evenly.
4. To make the cake, in a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and salt. Whisk thoroughly for at least 30 seconds to completely distribute the leaveners. Stir in the orange zest and grated fresh ginger. Reserve.
5. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the sour cream and milk until smooth. Reserve.
6. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter and sugars together at medium speed until creamy and pale, scraping the sides of the bowl several times, about 5 minutes. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, incorporating well after each addition.
7. Add the pumpkin, a spoonful at a time, mixing briefly between additions, just to incorporate. The batter will break at this point and look curdled. Don’t worry, in this batter, it is not a problem.
8. Add the dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the sour cream and milk mixture, adding the final third of the flour last. Mix for a few seconds longer to ensure that all ingredients are incorporated. Remove the paddle attachment and finish the batter by folding it several times with a large flexible spatula. The batter should now look creamy and stable.
9. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and level the top with a flexible spatula.
10. Bake in the lower third of a 350º oven for about 50 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean but moist. If the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan, pull the cake quickly out of the oven. Ideally, you want to pull the cake before this occurs. Over baking will cause the cake to be dry. The center temperature of the cake should read close to 210º on an instant-read thermometer and no higher.
11. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes only.
12. While the cake is still warm, turn it upside-down onto a serving platter. If some bits of cranberry and nuts cling to the pan, simply scoop them out with a flexible spatula and add them back to the top of the cake.
13. Serve while still warm with Apple Cider Caramel Sauce, Orange Cream, and a sprinkle of orange zest.

Makes one 10-inch coffee cake; serves 8-12.

Orange Cream

2 cups very cold heavy cream
¼ cup powdered sugar
3 drops orange oil

1. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the cream, and powdered sugar to the mixing bowl and mix at medium high speed until soft peaks are formed.
2. Add the orange oils and continue mixing at a slower speed until firm peaks are just formed.
3. Remove the whipped cream to a bowl or pastry bag fitted with a flower tip and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Makes 2 cups.

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  1. Cindy says

    Is there a mistake with the topping? Mine was swimming in butter when I turned it out of the pan. The bottom, then top, of the cake was not cooked. Managed to salvage by putting back in the pan and cooked for 15 more minutes.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Cindy, I checked the recipe, and there is no mistake. The butter and sugar should have turned to caramel and thus thickened, as shown in the pictures. Did you use the suggested toothpick test or internal temperature test to determine if the cake was done? It sounds as though undercooking was the problem. You might want to check the temperature of your oven with a free standing temperature gauge.

  2. Matt says

    Mmmmmm cranberries. Living in Oregon when ever we head over to the coast we always pick up all kinds of cranberry products. Now we have a new recipe to try with them. Thank you.

  3. says

    thank you so much for this recipe! It is a 10! I rarely give anything a 10. I did do a couple of things different. changed the hazelnuts to walnuts and used buttermilk instead of the sour cream and milk. this will be a regular thing at our house.

    • sms bradley says

      Wow, a 10, thank you, Jeanne! I have to say that I think this cake is sensational too. It was one of the blog’s very early posts so it didn’t get enough attention me thinks. I’ll point folks to it again in the fall. Your substitutions sound spot on. Darn, I wish I had a piece of this cake right now. :-)

  4. smsb says

    Joanne, I’m glad you bring this up. My recipe is a bit long, so I will post it under the Basics tab at the top of the blog and title it Cranberry Garnishes. The recipe contains directions for sugared cranberries and caramelized cranberries. Both are easy to make.

    Gorgonzola Cream Cheese mixture? That sounds so good!

  5. joanne says

    i am looking for a process called “carmelized cranberries? to top a gorgonzola/cream cheese mixture…i don’t know how to carmelize cranberries, can you help me…thank you…


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