This Pumpkin Ale Cake is moist, tender and nicely spiced. It’s a great cake for the fall and a perfect choice for Thanksgiving dessert. It’s accented with a brown sugar cinnamon whipped cream cream cheese frosting and swirled with a buttermilk caramel sauce!

A high angle photo of a three tiered Overhead photo of caramel within icing on a Pumpkin Ale with icing on a pedestal with small pumpkins Cake by themerchantbaker.com

At long last, I can finally present this cake to you with confidence!

I’ve been hinting in some recent posts that it was on its way, but after 3 years of on and off testing, it’s finally here! Break out the band! I’ve got some Pumpkin Ale Cake to share!

At the risk of being repetitive about recipe development, let me just tell you that this was a bear of a recipe to create.

It’s not like it was a journey of inedible cake after inedible cake.

As always, every single cake was good. “Why can’t you stop now?” my taste testers would ask after each version.

Well, the problems were many. I thought some of the cakes were just too moist. I thought some of them didn’t have enough pumpkin or enough ale in the recipe.

The pumpkin and the ale were really the bane of developing this recipe.

Overhead photo of caramel within icing on a Pumpkin Ale Cake with small pumpkins around it by themerchantbaker.com

So often, when you’re dealing with pumpkin, you have to figure out how to deal with the moisture. Pureed pumpkin can make the texture of a baked good cakey. This is a problem when you’re trying to make something where a cakey crumb may not be desired, as in cookies. 

I figured out how to conquer this issue for my pumpkin scones. But now I was making a cake. Sooooo, “cakey” shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Well, if I was just making a cake with pumpkin, then I wouldn’t have had a problem. I mean, I have my pumpkin ricotta cake. And, I’ve made other pumpkin cakes without issue.

A slice of Pumpkin Ale Cake being taken out of Pumpkin Ale Cake on a pedestal by themerchantbaker.com

 

The problem was now I had both pumpkin AND ale in the cake. Ale is watery. It’s not like cream or sour cream. It has no fat. It just added extra moisture to what was already a moist cake (due to the pumpkin.)

I could have cheated and really reduced the pumpkin and the ale, but I wanted them to be in great enough quantity to matter. Otherwise, I’d have a pumpkin ale cake in name only.

A high angle photo of Pumpkin Ale Cake on a plate with flowers by themerchantbaker.com

Okay. So, I made lots of different versions of the cake, changing up the ratios and ingredients, as always. As I said above, some were just too moist. I didn’t want that for this cake.

I wasn’t looking for a pumpkin bread kind of texture, as good as that might be. I wanted a slightly lighter crumb than I was getting…I was trying to eek out a little more fluffiness.

But…there was another problem. It was structural. For most, it would be ridiculous to bother fixing, but I wanted a cake that baked up properly.

What was the problem? I was getting a strange crispy lip on the cake when it baked. It was like a crispy edge. 

I know sometimes you can get an edge here or there, but this created a strange shape on the edges of my cake; the very upper edge of my cakes weren’t smooth and rounded.

I searched everywhere to try to figure out why my cakes were baking up this way. I couldn’t find a resolution for this issue anywhere, let alone anyone discussing the issue.

A small pumpkin with Gerber daisies on a small pumpkin by themerchantbaker.com

I didn’t know if it was a problem with the recipe or if I had over greased my pans…It was frustrating! But it was only frustrating to me. No one else cared. “You’re gonna cover it with frosting anyway, aren’t you?” 

I didn’t like it. I believed that there was something wrong with the recipe if it didn’t rise properly and without a lip of an edge. So, I kept working on it.

And by the way, there aren’t a whole lot of pumpkin ale cakes out there that might have added any guidance. 

In case you’re wondering, though, there are plenty of chocolate stout cakes out there. But a pumpkin ale layer cake made without a cake mix? Not so much.

So, I tried every ratio of pumpkin and ale. I made some of the cakes with butter and some with oil.

I tried a combination of white and brown sugars, then just white and then, just brown.

I worked on fat to flour ratios, wet to dry, increased the number of eggs. So many different trials!

But that’s all behind me now. At long last, I have a cake that meets my expectations.

Alrighty then….Let’s get into the recipe!

A Pumpkin Ale Cake with a slice removed on a pedestal by themerchantbaker.com

What temperature should the ingredients be?

This is important. I use room temperature pumpkin puree, room temperature pumpkin ale and room temperature eggs.

The butter should be softened to a cool room temperature.

Why does the temperature of the butter matter so much?

You will get dramatically different results when using different temperatures of butter.

You need room temperature butter so that it’s soft enough to whip air into it but not so soft that you can’t. You need it to be soft yet still solid, if that makes sense.

All of that air that you whip into the butter aids in the lightness of your cake. It’s why I chose butter for this cake instead of oil. I wanted a fluffier texture. (Again, I wasn’t trying to make pumpkin bread.)

Warm butter doesn’t whip well. It ends up being kind of greasy. So don’t let your butter get too soft.

How will I know if my butter is a cool room temperature?

It’s pretty easy. Just press your finger into the butter. It should leave an indentation but hold it’s shape, sort of like soft clay.

What the best way to achieve room temperature butter? Leave it on the counter for about 30 minutes. 

Of course, the time will depend upon how cool or warm your kitchen is. 

When we were in the midst of a heat wave, I kept missing the window and my butter would get too soft. 

Side photo of a three tiered Overhead photo of caramel within icing on a Pumpkin Ale with icing on a pedestal with small pumpkins Cake by themerchantbaker.com

How to soften butter quickly

My go to method for this is the microwave. I’ll stand a stick of cold butter up on its end and microwave it at the lowest power level for one minute. Then, I’ll check it by pressing with my finger. 

If it needs more time, I’ll do it in 10 second increments, checking after each time.

Warning! Do NOT forget to choose the lowest power each time your send your butter back for more time.

I accidentally forgot to choose the lowest power level one time and ended up melting the entire stick of butter in the microwave. That was a fun thing to clean up :(

The microwave option is a good option if you don’t mind keeping a close eye on your microwave. Sometimes I’ll get the butter started in the microwave and then let it sit in the microwave while I get the rest of my ingredients ready.

That being said, there are a bunch of other strategies out there for softening butter. 

I like to speak from experience though, and I really only ever use two strategies…leaving it out on the counter until it’s ready or using the microwave to speed it up.

Closeup photo of caramel within icing on a Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

 

How to bring eggs to room temperature quickly

If you didn’t remember to let them sit out and now you don’t have time to wait…

Place them in a bowl of warm tap water and let them bathe in the warmth for about 10 minutes. 

Honestly, I just leave them in the water until I’m ready for them. Don’t put them in boiling water. We don’t want to cook them. Just warm tap water should do the trick.

What kind of pumpkin ale should I use?

Use your favorite brand. Any will do. I used Pumking Imperial Ale. And no, it doesn’t have to be pumpkin ale. You can have fun experimenting with different flavors. I know there are some fun spiced ales out there. Or, just use any kind of ale you like.

A slice of Pumpkin Ale Cake on a plate with the Pumpkin Ale Cake on a pedestal in the background by themerchantbaker.com

What can I substitute for pumpkin ale?

First, the ale taste isn’t strong. If you like chocolate stout cake, you should be fine with an ale cake.

The alcohol bakes out and the flavor is subtle. It’s not like eating a beer cake.

I have to tell you that all ages loved the cake, in case you were concerned about ale flavor. 

Ok, so I’ve already mentioned above that any ale will work fine, so sub away.

However, if you really don’t want to bake with alcohol, you can substitute the ale for buttermilk. (Yeah, don’t worry about me working all these years to figure out how to make it work with ale. Yep. I’ll be fine… lol!)

A Gerber daisy flower by themerchantbaker.com

How to make your own pumpkin pie spice

In my pumpkin recipes, I will either use pumpkin pie spice or a mixture of spices.

Today, I decided to go with pumpkin pie spice to keep the ingredient list shorter.

But, if you don’t have pumpkin pie spice, you can make your own.

For this recipe, just mix 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg. That will give you the 2 teaspoons you need for the recipe.

I’ve used all kinds of ratios for pumpkin pie spice. Sometimes I’ll use just cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

I’ll even go with just cinnamon and allspice. Sometimes I’ll go heavier on the ginger. It all depends on my mood and the kind of recipe I’m making.

I think the ratio above is a good place to start and should be just peachy for this recipe. 

This isn’t a super strongly spice cake. If you want more spice in your cake, feel free to take it up to a total of 3 teaspoons.

If you’re making your own spice and you want to increase the amount, I would just double everything, then measure out the 3 teaspoons of the mixture. You’ll have some left over to use in the future.

I tried it both ways and honestly, liked it both ways. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for.

An overhead photo of two baking pans on empty one filled with batter to make Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

 

How to keep a cake from sticking to the pan

For pretty much all of my layer cakes, parchment eliminates the worry that my cake will not release. 

I generally give a light spray to the bottom and sides of the cake pan with cooking spray. Then, place a piece of parchment into the bottom and give it a light spray as well. Done and done.

Oh, and don’t leave your cakes in the pans to cool completely. You just want them to set up so that they’re not too soft/fragile. Ten minutes usually does the trick.

Overhead view of photo of three bare cakes of Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

The best way to cool layer cakes

I’m not sure if I’ve shared this before, but after my cakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes or so, I’ll flip them out onto a paper towel lined cooling rack and remove the parchment.

It’s actually two flips. One to flip it out onto the paper towel lined rack and remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake. Then, one to flip it right side up. The cake always only touches a paper towel lined surface.

When I’m done, the cakes end up right side up on a cooling rack with a paper towel beneath them.

I like using the paper towels because then I don’t get all the moisture that collects on the counter under the rack from the heat of the cake.

The paper towels allow the cakes to breath while they’re cooling. The cake won’t end up sticking to the cooling rack. And, the paper towels should pull right off without damaging the cake. 

That’s how I roll with cooling layer cakes. 

 

A Pumpkin Ale Cake on a pedestal with icing being applied by themerchantbaker.com

What’s a naked cake?

Basically, it’s a cake where the sides are either left unfrosted or frosted almost transparently with a thin layer of frosting. In either case, you can still see the cake layers.

I decided to go naked with this cake. That’s a great choice for a fun presentation, but if you’re going to store the cake for more than a day, I would go ahead and frost the sides. 

If you use the frosting that I used, the cake will need to be stored in the refrigerator. The refrigerator can dry out a cake. If you leave the sides unfrosted for days and days in the fridge, you’ll have dry cake. That would be sad.

But, if you frost the whole cake, the frosting will seal in the moisture and help keep the edges of the cake from drying out.

Of course, I still wouldn’t leave the cake in the fridge for days and days.

If I still have cake left after 2 days, I just cut the rest of the cake into pieces, wrap them individually in plastic wrap, then place them in a freezer bag and stash them in freezer. Might as well freeze the leftovers while they’re still fresh, right?

(I know. I can’t believe after fighting a too moist cake issue, I’m now telling you to be careful that it doesn’t dry out.)

An overhead photo of icing on Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

 

I used Brown Sugar Cinnamon Whipped Cream Cream Cheese Frosting for this cake. In fact, I created that recipe for this cake. The warmth of the brown sugar and the hit of spice is a perfect choice for a pumpkin cake. 

That being said, the original vanilla version of that same frosting would be equally delish as would my whipped vanilla frosting.

If you go with a non-spiced frosting, I would definitely go to 3 teaspoons of spice in the cake.

This post contains some affiliate links. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. 

Three photo of showing the icing and caramel being applied three tiered Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

 

How to frost the cake

Once you’re ready to frost the cake, and you’ve decided to go with a naked cake, as I have, you’ll simply need to take a third of your frosting and create a swirl pattern on each layer.

The great thing about a swirl pattern is that you can’t really make a mistake that you can’t fix.

The best way to do this is to start by giving your cake layer an even but thick coating of frosting.

I do take care not to let the frosting go to the edge and over. Better to have a thin border of cake than to have your frosting creep onto the sides.

Then, go back with your knife or a large offset spatula (aff. link) and use the end to gently push into the frosting and make a small “C” shape. Repeat this all over the top in different directions.

If you don’t like your first try, smooth it over and try again. Your best bet is to not overdo it. Start with a handful of swirls and then just add some here and there to give the entire top some texture.

Caramel being applied three tiered Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

 

How to create the caramel swirls

For the caramel swirls, I used my buttermilk caramel sauce, but you can use a jarred sauce, if you want to take a shortcut. Use one that you love.

I usually have Trader Joe’s fleur de sel caramel sauce in my pantry as a bac up, but the buttermilk caramel sauce is soooo good, you’re going to want to drink it…just sayin’…

Once your cake top is swirled to your liking, drop small spoonfuls of caramel sauce into the well that each swirl created. 

Then, take your off set spatula, or the knife that you created the swirls with and gently make the same motion you did with the swirl, but now in the caramel sauce following the general shape of the swirl.

Four photos showing the process of spreading caramel in icing on the top of a Pumpkin Ale Cake by themerchantbaker.com

Basically, it’s like you’re making a quick “C” in the caramel. It’s one swipe for each pool of caramel. More than that and you’ll end up swirling all over the darn place and end up with no definition between caramel and frosting.

I speak from experience, my friends. 

A slice of Pumpkin Ale Cake with caramel sauce on a small plate with Pumpkin Ale Cake on a pedestal in the background by themerhantbaker.com

And that’s it! You’ll end up with a beautiful pumpkin ale cake! Three layers of delicious pumpkin cake adorned with that creamy, not too sweet, brown sugar cinnamon whipped cream cream cheese frosting.

Then, the top gets an extra flavor boost with some delicious caramel swirls.

Finally, we’re gonna push the envelope a little further and generously drizzle individual slices with some warmed up caramel sauce.

I guess the stars aligned for this was finally the year to conquer Pumpkin Ale Cake and The Best Pumpkin Scones. In the end, it was worth it. When you push through a challenge, the reward can be rather sweet :)

A piece of Pumpkin Ale Cake with a piece on a fork on a plate from themerchantbaker.com

Look at that! Now that’s a perfect bite! Enjoy!

 

Pumpkin Ale Cake

Pumpkin Ale Cake

Yield: 1 (8") 3 layer cake
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

This Pumpkin Ale Cake is moist, tender and nicely spiced. It’s a great cake for the fall and a perfect choice for Thanksgiving dessert. It’s accented with a brown sugar cinnamon whipped cream cream cheese frosting and swirled with a buttermilk caramel sauce!

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 3/4 cup pumpkin puree, room temperature (not pumpkin pie filling)
  • 1 cup pumpkin ale, room temperature
  • 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (1 stick)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

For the frosting:

For the topping:

Instructions

Make the cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray 3 8" round pans with cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment. Lightly spray parchment. Set aside.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice in a medium bowl until combined. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together pumpkin and ale until combined. Set aside.
  4. In a mixing bowl, with an electric mixer, beat softened butter and sugar for about 3 minutes or until mixture is pale, light and fluffy.
  5. Add eggs and vanilla, adding eggs, one a time, mixing after each addition until each egg is combined.
  6. Alternate adding flour mixture and pumpkin ale mixture starting with 1/3 of the flour, then 1/2 of the pumpkin, 1/3 of the flour, last half of the pumpkin, then last 1/3 of the flour. Mix after each addition just until the addition is almost combined. Don't overbeat at this stage. The batter may look a bit curdled as you add the pumpkin and ale mixture. Don't worry. This is normal.
  7. Divide batter evenly among the 3 pans. Tap the pans on the counter a few times to release any air bubbles.
  8. Bake for 25-30 minutes, checking at about 20 minutes and rotating pans halfway through baking. Test for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the center of the cake. It should have just a few moist crumbs attached. The top of the cake should spring back when lightly touched. Take care to not overbake or you'll risk dry cake.
  9. Allow cakes to cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn out onto paper towel lined cooling racks, removing parchment paper from bottom. Flip cakes right side up and allow to cool completely.

Make the caramel sauce:

  1. You can make the caramel sauce while the cake is cooling. The link to the recipe is in the ingredient list. Allow to cool to room temperature for the frosting swirls. You don't want to melt your frosting with hot caramel. However, you can heat up the remainder at serving time to drizzle over individual slices. Alternately, you can use premade caramel sauce.

Make the frosting:

  1. Once the cakes are completely cool, make the frosting. Link to frosting is in ingredients. Make one batch for a naked cake assembly. Frost cake immediately after making frosting. This is not a good frosting to make in advance.

Assemble the cake:

  1. Place first layer on serving plate. Using an offset spatula, or the back of a spoon, evenly spread 1/3 of the frosting on top of the cake layer, stopping short from frosting all the way to the edge. You don't have to create a pretty swirl pattern on the first two layers, but you do want to be conscious that the edges of the frosting will show, so try to be neat. It doesn't have to be straight. It will look better if it's more natural around the edges.
  2. Repeat with second and third layers.
  3. On the third layer, create a decorative swirl pattern. (See blog post for more details)
  4. Using the cooled room temperature caramel sauce (you don't want to melt your frosting), drop small spoonfuls of the sauce into the well of a swirl.
  5. Using the tip of an offset spatula, or the back of a spoon, use one motion to swipe a "C" shape or crescent shape into the caramel to help it settle into the swirl shape. Repeat this process until you've covered the top of the cake with caramel swirls. Less is more. Try not to overdo it. See blog post for photos of this process.
  6. Store cake in refrigerator. Leave at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Serve with reheated remaining caramel sauce to drizzle over individual slices.

Notes

*See blog post for additional photos and tips for success.

*If you don't have pumpkin pie spice, you can use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

*The cake isn't super strongly spiced. I wanted some of the spice flavor to come from the frosting. Feel free to adjust spices to your taste. I tried batches using 2 teaspoons of spice and then 3 teaspoons of spice. I really liked them both. If you're making your own spice and want to increase to 3 teaspoons, it's easiest to double the amounts given above, mix them together and then measure out 3 teaspoons. You'll have some left over for the future.

*If you want to also cover the sides of the cake, make a batch and a half of the frosting.

*Measure your flour correctly or you'll throw the ratios off! I use the spoon and sweep method. Fluff the flour to lighten it and then gently spoon into the measuring cup. Use a flat edge to level the flour. 1 cup for me equals 4.25 ounces. So this recipe uses 10.6 ounces of flour total.

*When measuring the ale, allow the foam to subside to get the proper liquid measurement. It helps if you pour the ale down the side of the measuring cup to inhibit creating too much foam.