Butternut Squash Cake


The Monday after Thanksgiving, I stopped at my favorite orchard to pick up another bushel of apples for the apple-butter-making party we’d be having later in the week. While there, I thought I’d pick up another pumpkin or two, for a few cakes and other things. Unfortunately, that very morning they had decided to compost the few pumpkins they had left because there had not been any call for them after the holiday so no more pumpkins for me this year.  Since my “root cellar” garage has more than enough butternut squash for the season, that probably was just as well.

So today was the day to make squash cake. If that sounds bizarre to you, consider the great carrot cakes and pumpkin bars or muffins you have often enjoyed. Here’s a great frugal secret: for many (most) of these desserts, you can easily interchange carrots, pumpkin, and butternut squash. Since all are relatively mild (especially the squash and pumpkin), the flavor differences will be very hard to detect.

Old-fashioned carrot cake is the kind of recipe least amenable to these substitutions, though you can shred raw pumpkin or squash chunks just as you would carrots. However, many years ago, I found a carrot cake recipe that used mashed, cooked carrots, and that has been a family favorite ever since. I most often baked it in a Bundt or angel food cake pan, but it also works well in a standard 9 X 12 pan, and that is how I prepared this squash cake today. Note the addition of a tiny amount of black pepper, not enough to really taste it but enough to add a little zest to the overall recipe.

The topping is my old standby, sometimes-it-hardens-and-sometimes-it-doesn’t-fudge-frosting or, when it doesn’t set, just fudge sauce. It’s not really the recipe (many others in the family have used this repeatedly), it’s me and my impatience with the cooking, cooling, and/or beating. No matter the final consistency, the flavor is wonderfully fudge-like, my favorite kind of chocolate.

I want to be upfront about my checkered history with the recipe. When I post recipes on this site, I check and double check to be sure they will turn out satisfactorily as given. Just be forewarned that this frosting may not reliably set up to a picture perfect finale. However, it is so very flavorful that I am including it, with the thought that most of you will probably do a lot better than I in getting it to set just right. Because, even if it doesn’t, the flavor will be so good, you probably won’t even notice.

Chocolate Butternut Squash Cake

2 c sugar
1 c butter or margarine, softened but not melted OR 1/2 c butter and 1/2 c canola oil
1/3 c baking cocoa
4 eggs
1 c cooked and pureed butternut squash
2 c flour
2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/2 c milk
1/2 c broken pecans or walnut pieces (optional)

1.  Cream the butter, cocoa,  and sugar together until very smooth. (A stand mixer is especially good for this.)
2.  Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Continue beating until the mixture is very light. (I once had a home economics teacher say that you should be able to take a bit of the batter between your fingers at this stage, and you won’t be able to feel any graininess from the sugar, as it will all have dissolved. Not totally necessary, but this is the stage when you want to do most of the beating.)
3.  Gently stir in the squash puree, mixing until well blended.
4.  Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and black pepper together. Add these dry ingredients to the egg mixture alternately with the milk, stirring well after each addition. Fold in the nuts if used.
5.  Pour the batter into a well-oiled and floured a 9 X 13 loaf OR 10 inch tube pan. (OR see NOTE below.)
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes for the 9 X 12 pan or 55 to 60 minutes for the tube pan. Allow the cake to cool for about 15 minutes before turning it out of the pan.

NOTE:  Combine about a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon or so of cocoa and use this mixture to dust the pan instead of plain flour.

Chocolate Fudge Frosting

1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c baking cocoa
2 t cornstarch
1/2 c milk
1 T butter
1 t vanilla

1.  Combine sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch in a large, heavy pan. Pour in the milk, and stir until well blended.
2.  Boil the mixture over medium heat, until it forms a soft ball in cold water. Stir occasionally to keep from sticking.
3.  Remove from heat and allow to sit (stirring occasionaly) until cool. One way to cool this quickly is to put some ice cubes or crushed ice in a very large bowl or pan and place the saucepan of frosting in the center. The main problem with this approach is that some water could splash into the frosting, almost certainly assuring that you will not be able to get the frosting to “set.”
4.  Beat in the butter and vanilla and continue beating until the frosting is shiny and smooth. If you have a small electric beater, that can be a good tool at this point, as you will need to beat for a few minutes to really get the thickness you want. Spread immediately on the cake–usually easiest to do while the cake is still warm, but not hot.

A few additional thoughts for newer cooks:

How do I “sift” the dry ingredients together if I don’t have an old-fashioned flour sifter?
The reason to do this sifting step is to be sure to get all the dry ingredients–especially the baking soda or baking powder in these recipes–completely mixed. You can duplicate the sifting action by combining the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mixing thoroughly. The best tool for this is actually just a plain fork from your table. If you notice any lumps (especially likely for the soda and baking powder at times), be sure to use the fork to completely break them up.

How do I know if the frosting has reached “soft ball” stage?
As I noted above, I may not be the best person to ask this, as I don’t think I have always achieved it! However, here’s a nice, scientific, site that provides perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about this. https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/sugar-stages.html

This video actually shows what that “soft ball” should look like.


If you find yourself impatient in watching it (as I did!), that represents the same kind of impatience you’ll probably need when waiting for the frosting to really be cooked enough.

Why do I need to do more than just oil the pan? 
 You will probably ask this question only once, before you try to turn a cake out of a pan in one piece! Sometimes, you may get lucky and be able to get a whole cake on to the plate, but much more often, only oiling the pan will result in a large chunk of the cake stuck to the bottom of the pan.

So, if the recipe directions tell you to oil and flour the pan–do it! The best way to accomplish this is to use a small spoon to shake a little flour over the pan. Then tap the pan and swirl it around to get the flour evenly applied. Add more flour as needed and then shake off any excess–you really don’t want to have lumps of flour on the crust of your baked cake either.

I have added a NOTE to this recipe that suggests mixing flour and cocoa to use to dust the pan instead of plain flour. This is a relatively new hint for me, and I really, really recommend it for any chocolate cake. I had read about using cocoa instead of flour for doing the dusting, but I thought it might work to just use some of each. Sprinkling the two separately was hard to make the coating evenly distributed–as illustrated below. However, the cocoa did make a much more attractive crust than flour alone. Mixing just a little of both came out to be a really nice application.

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