Years ago in the early 1990s, I wrote a small cooking column for a local magazine. One recipe that we ran around the holiday season was entitled “Pumpkin Cake in a Jar”. It’s a fun little recipe to make and give as gifts or bring to a host of a party. Several years later, in 1993, I included it in a cookbook I wrote and I haven’t honestly thought about it since.
This week, looking at pumpkins everywhere reminded me of it. I took a spin around the Internet and saw that our recipe is still alive and well out there, in some unusual places but with few variations on that old original formula. The old pumpkin cake recipe called for using shortening as the fat component to the cake. Someone asked me what the difference was between using shortening, butter, or oil in cakes.
Making a cake is pure chemistry and a cake recipe is a chemical equation. To answer the question properly, I felt I needed a few good resources. I looked to two go-to books on my shelf. First was my ragged and stained copy of “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum. The second was “Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes” by Shirley O. Corriher. Both books are fantastic for explaining the complicated components of basic cake making, as well as other things.
The original pumpkin cake in a jar recipe called for shortening and sugar creamed together, and then eggs and pumpkin beaten in. Next, the dry ingredients (all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices) were added to the wet ingredients. Those are the basic characteristics of a category of cakes called “shortened” or “butter” cakes.
I learned that shortening, butter, and oil can be used virtually interchangeably in cake recipes. The big difference is in aeration. Shortening by nature creates fluffier cakes and cookies. It doesn’t have the same negative health connotations these days as it did when it was loaded with trans-fats. Since 2007, most shortening has been reformulated to be trans-fat free. When shortening is used in baking cakes, it creates a light and airy product. One problem with using shortening is it doesn’t add any flavor. But, if you use it in flavor-dense cakes (like a pumpkin cake), the end result is positive. Bottom line: beat cake batter for longer to aerate it more when using oil or butter.
I decided to make two styles of pumpkin cake: our old recipe using shortening and all-purpose flour and another using oil and cake flour. I used a recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book for inspiration. In her pumpkin cake recipe, she used cake flour instead of all-purpose flour.
Cake flour has much lower protein content than all-purpose flour and changing this will help to make a more tender cake. Cake flour is chlorinated so it is slightly acidic compared to all-purpose flour. There are some advantages to that. The acidity enhances the flour’s ability to absorb water and fat sticks to chlorinated flour better, and that all means a finer texture to the cake.
If you prefer to use fresh pumpkin rather than canned pureed pumpkin, you’ll need to do some extra work to get the texture nice and smooth. Basically, roast cut-up pieces of pumpkin in the oven for about one hour or until the flesh is tender, scrape off the meat, and run it through a food mill. I have a nice, sturdy hand-operated food mill that I love for getting textures smooth.
The cake made with shortening was lighter and fluffier, for sure. The cake made with oil was a little denser and more pound cake like with a nice walnut oil flavor. I asked every person in my office which they preferred — the answer was split, equally down the middle.
Here are both recipes. Give one or both a try. Perhaps serve these little cakes with a chocolate sauce or a dollop of ice cream. You can screw the canning jar tops on, wrap with ribbon and they make nice gifts.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ⅔ cup vegetable shortening
- 2⅔ cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- 1-1/4 cups cake flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 liquid ounces vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons walnut oil
- ¼ cup light brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin
- ½ cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease six ½-pint jars and two loaf pans.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices.
- In a separate mixing bowl, combine the shortening, sugar and eggs. Mix thoroughly until the mixture is smooth.
- Add in the pumpkin. Add in the flour mixture and beat until the flour is completely blended with the oils. Add in the walnuts.
- Bake for about 40 minutes.
- Makes six ½-pint jars plus enough batter to bake two loaf pans (bake these separately for about 45 minutes).
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease six ½-pint jars.
- Combine the cake flour, soda, spices, and salt.
- In a separate mixing bowl, combine the oils, brown sugar and eggs. Beat for about two to three minutes until the mixture is smooth. Add in the pumpkin.
- Add in the flour mixture and beat until the flour is completely blended with the oils.
- Add in the walnuts.
- Bake for about 30 minutes.