My brother used to come home from school when we were kids and immediately make his way to the kitchen pantry. There, waiting ever so patiently on the dark, crowded shelves were boxes of his beloved snack cakes. He liked all the shapes and brands I think, but I’m almost positive – if memory serves – that his affection was greatest for the ones shaped like zebras. Why, I’m not sure. But he loved them, those little cellophane-wrapped black and white striped cakes. He’d eat a two-pack every day without fail … you could almost set your watch to it. I loved those after school snack hours because it was a way to decompress from the busyness of the day and we always ended up laughing a lot, my Mom, brother and I.
I’d sample those snack cakes from time to time, but I always found them odd; almost good, but mostly dry and lacking in flavor. They were factory perfect though, and always seasonal in their appearance, shape and color. They were not, however, seasonal when it came to the actual ingredients listed on the back of the box. No, those stayed the same day after day, month after month, decade after decade. The cakes I’ve got for you in this post are nothing like those plasticine, mass-produced things my brother used to inhale all the time. Far from them, actually. Showcasing the season’s iconic and ever worshipped star, these pumpkin-laced cakes are one of my favorite things I’ve made in a while. The chocolate cake itself is fantastic – moist and incredibly flavorful and fuss-free, just like I like it. The frosting is what gets me most excited though, if I’m honest here, because it’s smart … there’s an extra step in the assembly process for the buttercream that requires you to cook the pumpkin puree with the brown sugar and spices which might seem unnecessary but I assure you it’s the key to a great pumpkin frosting. By cooking it, you remove excess moisture from the pumpkin and avoid creating a frosting that will eventually get runny and soggy and well, gross.
It’s definitely not a fancy cake – not “factory perfect” – nor is it particularly show-stopping so far as its appearance goes. You can eat it with your hands for crying out loud! But it’s just one of the several charming perks of snack cakes: no silverware needed. So, she’s a very casual thing, this sweet little cake, but she makes no apologies for it. I’d put her up against any other snack cake around, be it zebra or otherwise, and I’m telling you she will win every time. Why I’ve gendered this cake I’m not altogether sure … it’s probably the sugar high I’m currently riding, as I am literally eating my second piece as I’m writing this (keyboard be damned!).
In other news, I flew to NYC last week for a whirlwind, two-day trip to the 2016 Saveur Blog Awards and while I didn’t win any award specifically, I won in other ways (what a loser thing to say!). I truly did have the most incredible time getting to know bloggers from around the world whose work I’ve admired from afar for so long. It was an unforgettable couple of days and I’m working on putting together a recap here for you guys soon. But in the meantime, I leave you with snack cakes. The BEST snack cakes, though, and you’ll have to let me know if you make them. No offense, zebra cakes.
Chocolate Chai Snack Cakes with Pumpkin and Brown Sugar Buttercream RECIPE
*cake recipe adapted from “Handmade Baking,” by Kamran Siddiqi and the frosting is adapted from The Tough Cookie, both by way of The Vanilla Bean Blog
This chocolate cake is wonderful whether you choose to add the chai spices or not (the cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves). It has become my go-to chocolate cake and you can easily divide this cake batter between two 8″ round cake pans and make a layered version. You will have some pumpkin-brown sugar puree left over after you’ve put together the buttercream, and this is a GOOD thing. It is essentially the most delicious pumpkin butter you will ever have. I’ve been spreading mine on toast and waffles and muffins and all is right with the world.
for the cake:
2 cups granulated sugar
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
1 chai tea bag
for the pumpkin buttercream:
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
Pinch of salt
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 – 4 cups powdered sugar (to taste here, if you like your frosting a touch less sweet, I’d start with three cups)
For the cake: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter a 9″ X 13″ baking pan and then line it with parchment paper. Spray the parchment liberally with a natural cooking spray (such as a coconut oil spray or canola oil spray).
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the sugar, flour, cocoa, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Boil the cup of water and add the tea bag. Let steep for 5 minutes, and then bring to a boil again just before you add it to the batter.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sour cream, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry.
With the mixer on low, slowly add the boiling chai tea to the batter and mix just until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and stir to ensure it is well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 28 – 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out with minimal crumbs attached. Cool in the pan almost completely, and then turn the cake out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling completely, remove the parchment paper.
For the buttercream: Combine the pumpkin puree, sugar, butter, ginger, and cinnamon in a small saucepan and heat over med-low, stirring, until the butter has melted. Turn up the heat to medium and continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a slow boil. Once bubbling, turn the heat down to low and let it continue to cook for 3 minutes, still stirring. Remove the puree from the heat. Cool to room temp and then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to using.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 – 3 minutes. Add the salt and vanilla, and beat again. Turn the mixture to low and slowly add the powdered sugar, mixing until well combined. Add the chilled pumpkin puree to the buttercream one tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition. Keep adding until your desired pumpkin taste is reached – just don’t add too much. It can make the frosting runny. I used about 5 tablespoons. Scrape down the sides and mix the frosting on medium speed until light, and smooth (about 5 minutes).
To assemble: Move the cake to a serving platter and frost the top with the buttercream. Cut into squares and serve.