Don’t call it a Sheet Cake: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bars with Bourbon and Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting. - Something Edible
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Don’t call it a Sheet Cake: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bars with Bourbon and Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting.

Don’t call it a Sheet Cake: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bars with Bourbon and Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting.


Can someone tell me why what is obviously a pumpkin snack cake, gets the label of "Pumpkin Bars" in every cookbook I've ever laid eyes on? Etymological semantics aside, I wanted to bake me some pumpkin bars, but wanted to make darn sure what was going into the oven didn't come out too much like a cake. After finding the best traditional pumpkin bar recipe in my pile of community cookbooks, I proceeded to ruin it by swapping out for ingredients like olive oil, brown sugar, and whole wheat flower that would be certain to mitigate any notions this baked good may have had of true cakeitude. The substitutions don't come at a cost of simplicity either; this easy to bake recipe still results in a crazy-moist, cake-like bar that hints of complexity in an otherwise standard flavor set. And because it just wouldn't be fair to not fiddle with the frosting as well, we went ahead and spiked our cream cheese frosting with Bourboun punctuated by flecks of real Madagascar vanilla bean.


Be sure not to miss my video recipe for this post (so you can snicker at me while I screw things up and try to frost these pumpkin bars while they're still hot).

Though not by choice, the only winter squash coming out of this guy's garden this year is pumpkin. After roasting and freezing the first two pie pumkins from the remains of my garden, I began looking for recipes. It'd been a long while since I'd had any pumpkin bars. Pumpkin bars... bars? Seriously, why do we call 'em "bars"? If you follow the majority of recipes for this treat to the letter, you'll find that in most cases that what we've really got here is a quickbread or even a full-fledged cake.

And while I like a good snack cake, what really comes to mind when someone says "bars" is something that's a bit more dense, and possibly even chewy. So, what kind of options does that leave? First, I could go another direction and put the pumpkin into a custard base. This would no doubt be great, but I don't want pie or cheesecake (not yet anyway). I've tried butchering a brownie recipe before by subbing out chocolate for pumpkin, which was met with mixed results; as it's so hard to get a pumpkin brownie to cook completel without a raw-tasting middle and completely overdone edges. No, I was gonna play it safe, and do something that cooked up even, so I'm back to cake.

So, if I'm sticking with the sure thing and doing what essentially amounts to a sheet cake, the least I can do is make it a bit more dense and bar-like. In one of my many community cookbooks, I spied a pumpkin bar recipe that was prime for the butchering (hey, it is almost Halloween). I tinkered with some substitutions that would ensure that any rise in this recipe would be kept to a minimum, and then added some flavors that I thought were missing from the recipe as wrote. And frosting. With booze.

Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -

The Bars

  • 1 2/3 cups dark brown sugar (12 oz by weight)
  • 1 cup refined olive oil (not extra-virgin)
  • 16 oz pumpkin Roasted fresh or canned; the choice is yours.
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsps cinnamon ground
  • 1 tsp ginger ground
  • 1/2 tsp clove ground
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups whole white wheat flour (10 oz by weight)
  • The Frosting

  • 3 oz light cream cheese
  • 2 tsps Bourbon whiskey
  • 1 vanilla bean You're just using the pulp.
  • 1/2 cup butter Room temperature (aka 1 stick; aka 4 oz).
  • 2 cups powdered sugar (8 oz by weight)

  • For the bars proper-
    Preheat over to 350 F. In a stand mixer, blend brown sugar, olive oil, pumpkin, and salt on medium speed for about 2 minutes or until integrated. Scrape the bowl; then add eggs, cinnamon, clove and ginger and mix for another 2 minutes on medium. Scrape down bowl again, whisk together baking powder, baking soda, and whole wheat flower; then add to the proto-batter in small scoops while the mixer stirs (that's the slowest speed people). Once integrated, pour into a parchment-lined or greased half sheet pan.

    Bake 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when the center is probed. Let cool completely before frosting

    ....oh yeah; speaking of frosting: Using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, integrate all the ingredients except the powdered sugar on medium-high speed, stopping to scrape the bowl as necessary. Once its all together, continue on medium high, adding the powdered sugar by the tablespoonful, scraping the bowl as necessary until all the sugar is and the mixture has that whipped consistency.



    • If you're using canned pumpkin and not rolling your own, make sure you pick up the "pure" pumpkin and not that pie filling business.
    • All whole wheat flour is not the same! In my baking exploits, I've found that Hudson Cream whole wheat flour can darn near be swapped out 100% for all-purpose, and you'll still get a desirable product. I understand King Arthur makes a whole wheat flour milled from hard white wheat as well; but as I've never used it, I can't vouch for it. Anyhow, if you just can't find hard white whole wheat flour, try a 50/50 mix of traditional [hard red] whole wheat flour and all-purpose.
    • Again with the ingredients, I don't think I'd wanna use my extra virgin olive oil here either. However, I'm a big big fan of refined olive oil in baked goods; especially where cucurbits are concerned. Olive oil seems to have a synergy with squash that makes for a richer and more complex tasting end result.
    • The frosting recipe makes just enough to cover what's in the pan. If you like it slathered on thick, you might wanna increase all those proportions by 50%.
    • The original recipe called for a 15"x10"x1" pan. I measured all my stuff and found I didn't have one. Well, bless my baking ignorance; this is a jelly roll pan. No difference; we're trying to mitigate lift and keep the bars more bar-like; and for that, a half sheet pan is perfect.
    • There are a few things you can do to help yourself get these buggers out of the pan easily. First, line that sheet pan with parchment. It doesn't have to be a perfect fit; just get it close, and use a bit of non-stick spray to stick it down to the pan (irony!). Second, keep a glass of warm water on hand to dip your cutting utensil of choice so as to mitigate frosting stickage.



    Why go through all the trouble of fooling with a perfectly acceptable, dare I say "classic" recipe? The short answer is that I wanted pumpkin bars, not pumpkin cake. And while there's no mistaking that these pumpkin bars have a cake-like crumb, they also have a bit of substance to them courtesy of the brown sugar and whole wheat flour. With the eggs and pumpkin working to bind it all together, we have a pumpkin bar that stays tender and incredibly moist and yet still holds together (ahem). Oh, and I gotta say a little something here about the frosting: Wow. This might be the best cream cheese frosting I've ever done. The Bourbon keeps the sweetness at bay; and it goes without saying that you can't really do a cream cheese frosting without vanilla, so using the bean in lieu of extract frees us to add other liquid flavors like the aforementioned booze.

    I still haven't given up on my quest for a different kind of pumpkin bar altogether; I love granola, and I'd like to find a way to work some into a pumpkin-based baked good. Buuuut in the meantime, I'm more than happy to snack on this whole grain rendition of a more traditional pumpkin bar. This is one of those recipes that just exudes wholesomeness; and can't be beat when paired with a cup of coffee. Though taste-wise, both the bars proper and the frosting can stand on their own (I got a carrot cake with that frosting's name on it), there is a flavor synergy between the two that makes a cook happy that something with a delicious complexity can come from such a simple and fool-proof recipe.

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