By Libbie Summers (from my book, Sweet and Vicious–baking with attitude, Rizzoli)
Photography by Chia Chong
When you say no, say it in such a way that it leaves a lasting impression.
The last interview I had for a mainstream job went on for two hours and twenty-six minutes. It was a big-girl kind of job with a very well-known company, and I was honored to be tapped to interview for the position.
What started out as a pleasant interview by two men and one woman in a professionally decorated boardroom quickly turned into an interrogation. For two hours, I tried to stay calm and answer their questions with honesty and humor. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not. The last request of the interview (and the only one I remember) was that I name four impressive things about myself. I don’t remember the first three answers I gave, but I do remember the last. I described this cake recipe I had been working on at home: two layers of the best pumpkin cake you’ve ever eaten separated by thick layers of caramel frosting and topped with shards of pumpkin seed brittle. I must have gotten lost in my own thoughts and hunger during the description, because when I opened my eyes there were six eyes staring at me and three mouths wide open –stunned is how I would describe them if asked before a jury.
We exchanged pleasantries as they walked me to the elevator. It didn’t take me more than two floors on the descent to realize I’m not cut out to work in a corporate environment. Apparently, they did not feel the same way, as two weeks later I had a formal offer. I was shocked and flattered, but I knew the truth. That night I baked them a Salty Pumpkin Spice Cake and shipped it to their offices overnight, packed securely inside a plastic cake container with a “No, thank you” note attached.
Since that cake shipped two years ago, I’ve done twenty-four freelance jobs for that company. I think it’s safe to say this is one impressive cake!
Salty Pumpkin Spice Cake
(warm caramel frosting + pumpkin seed brittle topping)
serves 12 to 16
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cayenne
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 (15-ounce) can pure pumpkin puree
1⁄2 cup plain yogurt (nonfat works fine, but I prefer whole Greek yogurt)
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
Caramel Frosting (recipe follows)
Pumpkin seed Brittle Topping (recipe follows)
salty pumpkin spice cake
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Add the pumpkin, yogurt, and vanilla and mix until well combined. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared baking pans. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the cake begins to pull away
from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool slightly in their pans while you prepare the frosting. It’s important to frost the cake while the cake and the frosting are both still warm.
Frost the cake using half of the Caramel Cream Cheese frosting for each layer. (Don’t frost the sides.) Garnish with shards of Pumpkin seed Brittle. (This cake is meant to be sweet and vicious-looking!) Slice and serve.
caramel cream cheese frosting
makes about 5 cups
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
1⁄2 cup milk
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and stir in the milk. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
In the bowl of a standing mixer !tted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the cooled caramel mixture and beat until combined. Add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, beating until each addition is incorporated before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the vanilla paste and beat for 1 minute.
Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 10 days or frozen for up to 3 months. When you are ready to use, bring to room temperature and beat until creamy. Add a little confectioners’ sugar if needed to bring the frosting back to a creamy consistency.
If you’d like to kick up the heat, add a pinch of cayenne pepper to the finished frosting.
pumpkin seed brittle topping
yields about 3 cups
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup corn syrup
1 3⁄4 cups pepitas (raw hulled pumpkin seeds)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons butter
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cayenne
Pinch of sea salt
Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
In a large skillet over high heat, stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and 1⁄4 cup water and bring the mixture to a full boil. Stir in the pepitas with a heatproof spatula. Continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the syrup becomes thick and honey colored and you begin to smell the pepitas cooking. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Working quickly, stir in the butter, cinnamon, and cayenne and continue to stir until the butter has melted. Turn the brittle out onto the prepared baking sheet and, working quickly, use the back of your spatula to spread the mixture out to a thin 8-by-10-inch rectangle. Sprinkle the top with sea salt and let the brittle cool completely, for about 20 minutes, then break into shards. Store the shards in an airtight container for up to 10 days.
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