Pumpkin Cake Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting: two recipes – what's the difference?

There’s probably not a more universal American experience over the past 45 years than Sesame Street. And if you’ve sat on the couch with a giggly 3-year-old watching Big Bird and Cookie Monster, you’ve probably heard this song:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

See the two frosted bars above? They look and taste incredibly similar, but there’s a fundamental and important difference between them. Can you guess what it is?

OK, here’s some context. I recently whipped up one of my favorite fall recipes, Pumpkin Cake Bars. Deep-orange, moist, cake-type bars, nicely spiced, they’re crowned with rich cream cheese icing and toasted walnuts.

So, what’s not to like? I know many of you dislike nuts; go ahead, leave ’em out. Subtract the golden raisins and crystallized ginger bits inside (though I’ll sigh with disappointment if you do). Add chocolate chips (I won’t object).

Don’t like pumpkin? Look for another recipe. Fall is full of non-pumpkin treats, like these apple muffins.

Ah, here’s a tougher proposition: you don’t like gluten – because it doesn’t like you.

Well – leave it out.

DSC_5496

You can still make these wonderfully tasty bars – and I guarantee, no one will know they’re gluten-free.

Yup, that’s the difference. The bars on the left are made with all-purpose flour; on the right, with gluten-free flour. And while there’s more to it than simply swapping out flours, it’s actually simple to take this tasty bar recipe and make it gluten-free.

Here’s how –

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Don’t worry, I’ll interpret.

The original recipe calls for this to be baked in a large (18″ x 13″) rimmed cookie sheet – in other words, a half-sheet pan.

So, in order to test gluten-full vs. gluten-free versions side by side, I’m going to mix everything except the flour (and raisins and crystallized ginger), then divide the batter in half and, for starters, add regular all-purpose flour to one batch, and gluten-free multi-purpose flour to the other.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

My test kitchen buddy Susan Reid says that a recipe baked in a 9″ x 13″ pan can be baked in a half-sheet pan by multiplying the 9″ x 13″ recipe by 1 1/2. Yes, by 1 1/2, not 2.

9″ x 13″, 18″ x 13″ (half sheet) – looks like it should be doubled, right?

That would work if the half-sheet pan was 2″ deep, like the 9″ x 13″ pan. But you have to take its shallower depth into account; we’re not doing plain  2 x 2 = 4 arithmetic here, we’re into the volume of geometry.

No need for a super-deep dive, but this formula meant I needed to take the original 18″ x 13″ recipe, multiply it by 1 1/3, then divide the resulting batter in half – one half becoming gluten-full, the other gluten-free, each baked in a 9″ x 13″ pan.

Wait! Come back! Remember, this is all for testing purposes; when you’re ready to make these bars, just follow the original recipe (using either the 18″ x 13″ or 9″ x 13″ versions; there are directions for both).

Let’s take a look, shall we?

pump1

As you can see, I’ve stirred together everything except the flour, raisins/ginger, and nuts. At this point, I divide the smooth batter in half, setting half aside for my gluten-free experiment.

I then stir all-purpose flour, nuts, and raisins/ginger into the first bowl of batter, and pour it into a 9″ x 13″ pan.

pump2

Bake it – looks good, right?

Let’s make our gluten-free version with that remaining half of the batter.
pump3

Since gluten-free baked goods miss gluten’s structure, I’m adding an additional egg, whose protein will help hold things together. I’m also adding xanthan gum, another structure-builder.

I stir in the gluten-free multi-purpose flour, nuts, and raisins/ginger.

pump4
Pour the batter into the 9″ x 13″ pan, bake it – again, it looks good, right?
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You bet!

Can you tell which of these is the standard version, which the gluten-free?

I can’t – and I forgot to label them!

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Whip up the cream cheese frosting, spread it on both cakes, sprinkle with toasted walnuts…
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Et voilà!

Is this gluten-full, or gluten-free?

Doesn’t matter; both versions are delicious.

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Counter-intuitively, the gluten-free bars actually rose a tiny bit higher than the all-purpose flour bars. Go figure.

I did some taste-testing with my fellow employee-owners here at King Arthur, and while some could taste a difference, they couldn’t identify what it was. “They taste a tiny bit different, but they’re both delicious,” was the consensus.

And after all, isn’t that exactly the reaction you want, when converting one of your favorite recipes from gluten-full to gluten-free?

Want to make these pumpkin bars? Read the recipe and accompanying tips, which detail the gluten-free conversion. Happy baking!

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Cindy J

    Hi,
    Can I substitute the Baking Mix for the flour, baking soda, baking powder, etc. in making the gluten-free pumpkin cake bars, & how much of it do I use?
    Thank you,
    Cindy

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for checking, Cindy. We aren’t able to share the exact proportions of ingredients in the Gluten-Free Baking Mix, so we recommend reserving it for use in recipes that have been specifically designed for it. This recipe for Pumpkin Cake Bars can be made gluten-free, however, by subbing our new Measure for Measure Flour (http://bit.ly/2f7eC0N) 1:1 for the All-Purpose Flour called for in the recipe. You might also try making our designed-to-be Gluten-Free Pumpkin Cake Bars (http://bit.ly/1Qu04kd) with our Gluten-Free Flour (http://bit.ly/1I8P0De); or if you really have a hankering for something pumpkin made with our GF Baking Mix, this Pumpkin Bread Recipe instead: http://bit.ly/1GxJVZc Hope one of these options works for you! Mollie@KAF

  2. Emilie

    I just made these, and since I have a quarter-sheet pan as well as a half, I did 1.5x the recipe to use up the entire can of pumpkin, which worked great. They are currently cooling and it’s taking all my will power not to cut off a slice while it’s warm. Somehow I’m going to wait until after they’re frosted, but I’d really like to know how you store these — in the fridge because of the cream cheese? Also I’m wondering if it would be best to wait to sprinkle the nuts on top until I’m ready to serve, since that won’t be until after they’ve been stored for 24 hours. And how long do they stay fresh? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Emilie, food safety experts would tell you to store the bars in the fridge as soon as you’ve iced them, or within a couple of hours. Make sure you cover them tightly, as refrigeration can make them dry out; I wouldn’t leave them longer than a couple of days in the fridge, as all the time they’re in there they’re gradually deteriorating, freshness-wise. Fine to sprinkle with nuts just before serving, although I made these last weekend, sprinkled with nuts immediately, refrigerated overnight and served the next day — and I really couldn’t detect any problems with the nuts having become potentially soggy. Enjoy – PJH

    2. Emilie

      Thanks for the reply, PJ. I just reviewed the recipe, they are SO good! I think food safety experts are sometimes over-zealous in their recommendations, but of course understand you guys need to go with their guidelines. And I went ahead and sprinkled them with nuts last night and you’re right — they’re still just fine. I also froze an extra 1/4 sheet pan I made and frosted, we’ll see how well that works when I thaw them before too long!

  3. Saundra

    Do you have conversions for using almond flour and/or coconut flour? Many like me are needing to eat grain free. I would love to have a conversation chart for substituting flours for the gluten-free flour indicated in many of your recipes. Thanks! Would love to make these.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Almond and coconut flour aren’t going to perform the same in a one to one conversion with GF flour, so your best bet is to work with a tested recipe using only almond and coconut flour. We have some on our website, and you can search using “almond flour” or “coconut flour” in the search box on the recipes page. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

  4. Dawn

    Is there any hope for a mathematically disinclined baker who uses 15″x10″x1″ pans? I genuinely want to make these bars. Help?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s true that a recipe written for a 9 X 13 (2″ tall) pan will fit in a jelly roll pan that’s 15 X 10 X 1. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

  5. cadfael

    I am in a Christmas bake ahead mode. I like to bake a number of goodies and put out an assortment over the holidays. Can these be frozen?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Yes, I’ve frozen these (well wrapped, i plastic with foil over the plastic) for up to a month – so no problem freezing these for Christmas. When you thaw, remove the wrapping so the icing doesn’t stick to it. Enjoy – PJH

  6. "Talesbylky@aol.com"

    Just frosted a batch for work tomorrow. I used the 9 x13 pan, should I have reduced the amount of frosting? Seems like a lot for the size, but then again, when is there too much frosting? The recipe baked up like a dream, I can’t wait to have one. Thank you all for sharing!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      There is a reduced recipe for the frosting when baking the 9 X 13 version, but I’m with you–you can never have too much frosting! Barb@KAF

  7. mforsythe0512

    These bars are quite scrumptious! I’m just wondering if there’s someway to increase the amount of pumpkin purée in the recipe? I’d like to appreciate more of its flavor. Thx for another winner!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You could add a bit extra if you are working with the wheat version, but too much is going to make it damp and unbaked tasting. I would not change the GF version, either. Perhaps a bit more pumpkin spice would add the flavor you are looking for. Laurie@KAF

  8. Liz Shahan

    Made this last weekend it was so delicious. Would love to make this as a layer cake for a pumpkin lovers birthday cake. Would The gluten free recipe also work in a bunt or regular round layer cake?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Absolutely, Liz! You would need to adjust your baking times a bit (you can keep the same temperature), but you should be just fine to make that up in another pan. I hope that helps and if you have any more questions, please feel free to contact our Baker’s Hotline at 1-855-371-2253. Happy Baking! Jocelyn@KAF

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