This pumpkin bread is vegan, refined sugar-free, and free of any added oil. Yep, that’s right, I made a vegan pumpkin bread without any added oil and a delicious frosting that has no refined sugar!
My quest for healthifying pumpkin bread, however, led me down one of the more involved recipes testing rabbit holes. While it wasn’t uncommon for me to test a recipe for my cookbook anywhere from three to ten times (the Instant Pot can be a bit more finicky and requires more deliberate testing; plus, it’s a cookbook that people are paying for), I usually nail recipes for my blog on the first or second try, and rarely test a recipe more than two or three times before posting it.
But, alas, this healthy pumpkin cake presented some challenges that required SIX recipe tests before I finally nailed it.
So, let’s talk about the challenges posed by baking a vegan, oil-free, refined sugar-free pumpkin cake?
Gluten (or lack thereof): I really wanted to make this a gluten-free loaf using naturally gluten-free flours, but alas, it was not doable, especially because I wanted to keep the loaf refined sugar-free, and oil-free. A vegan, oil-free, refined sugar-free, AND gluten-free pumpkin loaf cake…that proved too difficult of a challenge for me. Maybe if I had started testing this recipe in August and maybe if groceries weren’t so damn expensive in NYC, I would have figured it out. But neither of these things is true, so I gave up on gluten-free after the first two gluten-free loafs turned out unsurprisingly dense and gummy (seriously, the version with oat flour was a complete hot mess).
Pumpkin: Pumpkin purée is a heavy, dense ingredient, so adding it to baked goods can make them, well heavy and dense. While a certain amount of denseness is good in quick breads liek this, pumpkin breads can be tricky for this reason.
Oil-Free: I am by no means oil-free (a brief review of my recipes will reveal as much), but I do like developing oil-free recipes from time to time because I have a decent number of WFPB readers who do not cook or consume oil. Typically, I love baking cakes with oil, as it lends cakes with a light, even crumb and tender moist texture, so making a quick bread/cake oil-free was a bit of a challenge. I used almond butter instead, and while it is a pretty good substitute for oil in some baking applications, it is obviously much thicker and denser than oil. To make up for this, you need to add a bit more liquid in the recipe (in this case, a plant-based milk).
Loaf cakes: The thickness of a loaf pan, as opposed to a traditional square or round cake pan, makes for cakes that are easy to undercook. You know what I’m talking about—you get that beautifully golden brown crust on the top, but your bread is moist and undercooked on the inside, especially in the center. Yeah, this happened to me four times while testing this recipe. Of course, I still ate a good portion of these failed breads because vegan baking = no eggs = it’s safe to do that. But these undercooked loaves were not acceptable to serve to anyone else.
Okay, now that you know about the challenges I experienced while testing this recipe, let’s talk about the ingredients used in this Healthy Vegan Pumpkin Cake (now that I finally nailed the recipe).
All-Purpose Flour: As mentioned above, I wanted to make this loaf gluten-free, but sadly, it just didn’t work out. That said, you could try using a 1:1 all-purpose gluten-free flour. I can’t guarantee the texture will be the same, but I’ve made a similar bread (pumpkin banana bread) using this variety from Bob’s Red Mill with good results.
Spelt Flour: To keep this bread healthy, I do use equal parts spelt flour and all-purpose flour. Spelt flour is less processed, a whole grain, and a good source of fiber. If you don’t have spelt flour, feel free to just use more of the all-purpose flour.
Cornstarch: You might think of cornstarch only as a thickener, but did you know it can also be used to bake cakes? When combined with flour, cornstarch has the effect of softening and inhibiting the tight gluten proteins in flour, making for a more tender baked good. That is why recipes for homemade cake flour call for combining all-purpose flour with cornstarch (cake flour which yields cakes with a finer crumb and more tender texture than all-purpose flour).
NOTE: If you live in the U.K., cornstarch is referred to as “corn flour.” But in the U.S., corn flour is NOT the same as cornstarch.
NOTE: I have not tried this recipe using arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch, but their properties are pretty similar, so I assume it would work as well.
Homemade Pumpkin Spice: If you have store-bought pumpkin spice, feel free to use that, but I always find that my homemade blend packs in a lot more punch and flavor. I use a 4:1 ratio of cinnamon to nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice. Most recipes (and store-bought blends) use smaller amounts of allspice and cloves, but I find that they usually lack that deep rich aroma and flavor that I love about pumpkin bread.
Baking Powder and Baking Soda: I tried this recipe with just baking soda and found that it caused the bread to rise too much. So much so that the top rose quickly, making it even more likely that the top was cooked but the inside was undercooked. Solution? I cut down on the amount of baking soda (which is much more powerful than baking powder) and added in some baking powder. This combo seems to cause the bread to rise a healthy amount.
Pumpkin Purée: Including pumpkin purée in a pumpkin cake is pretty obvious, no? I did test this recipe using both canned and homemade pumpkin purée, and both work fine. If you do make homemade purée, I recommend scooping the purée it into a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl and allow any liquid to drain out. Otherwise, the batter might be too watery.
Aquafaba: I have had experiences with vegan loaf cakes turning out gummy when using flax eggs, and since this is already a pretty dense loaf, I wanted to use a different egg substitute. Hence, aqufaba (the liquid leftover from cooked chickpeas), which is quite light and fluffy when it’s lightly whipped.
Almond Butter: Almond butter is the primary fat source in this recipe and the substitute for using any oil. As I mention above, it is thicker than oil, so please keep that in mind. You want your almond butter to be smooth and creamy, not at all dry or chunky. This is not the time to scrape those hardened bits off the bottom of an almond butter jar. If your almond butter is particularly stiff, stir one or two tablespoons of plant-based milk before using. I don’t recommend using peanut butter because the flavor will overwhelm the pumpkin.
Maple Syrup and Coconut Sugar: I use both sweeteners to achieve the right textural balance. Using only maple syrup would make the batter too liquidy; using only coconut sugar would make it dry. They are both unrefined sweeteners, but if you can’t find coconut sugar and don’t mind a little refined sugar, organic brown sugar will work just as well (possibly better because it is moister than coconut sugar).
Almond Milk: I use almond milk because it’s not too thick, and a thick plant-based milk might make the batter quite thick. If you do use a thicker milk such as oat milk, I recommend thinning it out just a bit with a few spoons of water water, then measuring the amount called for in the recipe.
Now that I’ve given you a thorough overview of the ingredients in this recipe, here are some tips to help you nail this recipe. I recommend reading them through because when you bake with specialty ingredients or for specialty diets, it is extremely important to follow the instructions very closely.
Tips for Baking This Healthy Vegan Pumpkin Cake
As I mentioned in my recent post for Pumpkin Sheet Pancakes (which, btw, you HAVE to make), I’ve gotten into the habit of weighing dry ingredients for baking. I find it’s the most accurate way to ensure consistent results with baked goods, especially when the recipe is made with specialty ingredients, as is the case for this this vegan, refined-sugar-free, no-added oil pumpkin bread. Since everyone has a different set of measuring cups and there are different methods of measuring ingredients like flour and sugar, I weighed everything on a digital kitchen scale, down to the gram. This is the digital kitchen scale I have. I’ve included the weights below and recommend you stick to them instead of relying on measuring cups.
I recommend sifting together the dry ingredients and mixing well before adding them to the wet ingredients for three reasons. First, this means you have less mixing to do when you combine the dry and wet ingredients (which is important, as you’ll see in the next bullet point). Second, this ensures that the baking powder and baking soda are distributed evenly, which will help your cake rise evenly. And finally, this means fewer lumps in your batter.
NOTE: I didn’t sift the dry ingredients together in the video because I forgot to do it while I was filming and when I realized it, it was too late to go back. Oops!
Calibrate your oven. Make sure your oven temperature is accurate! You can buy an old school oven thermometer for $5-8 and it is so worth it! If your oven temperature is lower than stated, it will take longer for your banana bread to bake.
Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet ingredients using a wooden spoon or silicone spatula and do not overmix. Mix until the batter is just combined and no streaks of dry ingredients remain. About 15-20 light strokes by hand should do the job (avoid using an electric mixer). This is a quick bread and the batter is meant to be a bit rustic, so there should be some lumps in the batter. Overmixing causes more gluten to develop than necessary, resulting in tougher baked goods and irregular “tunnels” or air holes in the texture.
Don’t let the batter rest. As soon as you’ve mixed the batter, pour it into your prepared loaf pan and pop it in your preheated oven. That’s because as soon as the baking soda is mixed with the liquid ingredients, it starts reacting and releasing carbon dioxide, thus beginning the leavening process. You want to capitalize on that leavening process and get to baking right away.
Bake the bread uncovered for the first half of the baking time, then put a loose tent of foil on top of the bread for the remainder of the baking time. This ensures that the top of the bread doesn’t get too brown (or burn) before the middle of the bread has enough time to cook. This method helps deal with the aforementioned difficulties of baking in thick loaf pans.
If your loaf pan is an 8×4-inch pan (instead of the standard 9×5-inch pan), your loaf will be even thicker due to the smaller pan size, so you might need to bake the loaf a bit longer, up to 70 minutes.
If your bread is cracked on the top, do not worry! Most quick breads come out with cracks on the surface—it’s just a sign of their rustic character :) Plus, if you make the cashew buttercream frosting, you won’t even notice the cracks.
To test if the loaf is baked, I recommend inserting a toothpick in two spots: the center, as is customary, but also the top-center of the loaf. The latter spot can sometimes be a better indication of whether a loaf is fully baked. If the toothpick comes out with only a few moist crumbs, the cake is done. If you see wet batter, you need to continue baking the loaf. Check again after five minutes.
Once the loaf is baked through, wait until it has cooled before slicing it. This takes a minimum of 45 minutes. If you slice into it too early, the loaf might be a bit underbaked in texture.
Okay, now that you know EXACTLY how to bake this Healthy Vegan Pumpkin Bread perfectly, let’s talk about the Cashew Buttercream Frosting! The frosting is totally optional, as the pumpkin bread is plenty delicious on its own, but if you want to jazz up your pumpkin bread or try something new, give it a go!
When I typically make loaf cakes, I can be lazy and opt for a sugar icing, but I wanted to keep this pumpkin bread healthy and refined sugar-free! Enter this cashew buttercream frosting. This recipe is adapted from The Minimalist Baker’s Cashew Buttercream Frosting, but my version is oil-free and requires less resting time.
This vegan, refined-sugar-free, oil-free frosting is made with raw soaked cashews, coconut cream, coconut yogurt, maple syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, and sea salt. And for extra flavor that complements pumpkin spice, I add orange zest and cardamom. Yes, that’s right…a pumpkin bread with an Orange Cardamom Buttercream Frosting. DELICIOUS!
Raw Cashews: The cashews need to be soaked, either in cool water for 8 hours or in boiling water for 1 hour. This forms the base of the frosting and how it becomes so thick and creamy.
Coconut Cream: You can either buy canned coconut cream separately, or scoop out the solid white portion from a can of full-fat coconut milk (reserve the liquid for another use, such as smoothies).
Coconut Yogurt: This adds a nice subtle tang that is welcome in this frosting. If you want an extra thick yogurt option, I recommend COYO Coconut Yogurt, but I used the unsweetened So Delicious coconut yogurt and it came out nice and thick.
Lemon Juice: This is necessary for neutralizing and masking the taste of cashews, so don’t skip!
Maple Syrup: This might be healthy frosting, but it’s still frosting so we need some sweetness, Start with 3 tablespoons of maple syrup, then taste and add more as needed to taste.
Orange Zest: The strong, pungent sweet aroma of orange zest brings out the pumpkiny flavor of pumpkin, so this is a perfect pairing.
Cardamom: Cardamom is not a traditional spice used in pumpkin spice, but it does have the same sweet, spicy, aromatic, pungent quality of pumpkin spice does, and it also pairs really well with the fresh brightness of the orange zest.
Once you’ve blended all the ingredients together in a food processor or high-powered blender, you will have a thick and creamy yet pourable texture. To turn that pourable cream into spreadable buttercream frosting, you need to freeze the mixture for 30 minutes, then whisk to combine. Freeze again for 30 minutes and then whip it with an electric mixer. To see what the texture should look like, I recommend watching the video.
Okay, that was a long blog post! I hope you found it useful and enjoy this recipe for Healthy Vegan Pumpkin Bread with Cashew Buttercream Frosting!
Pumpkin Bread Ingredients
- 1 cup (120g) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (140g) spelt flour (can substitute with 1 cup (120g) all-purpose flour)
- 2 tablespoons (16g) cornstarch
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 teaspoons homemade pumpkin spice (or store-bought)
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon EACH: ground ginger, nutmeg cloves, and allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 cup aquafaba (the liquid from a can of chickpeas)
- 1 cup (240g) pumpkin purée (from a can or homemade*)
- 1/2 cup (125g) almond butter
- 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (130g) coconut sugar**
- 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (90 mL) pure maple syrup
- 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (210 mL) almond milk***
- 1 heaping teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Cashew Buttercream Frosting (optional, recipe below)
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Orange Zest
Cashew Buttercream Frosting Ingredients ***Recipe adapted from The Minimalist Baker
- 1 1/2 cups (170-180g) raw cashews, soaked*
- 1/2 cup (~120g) coconut cream**
- 3 tablespoons (45 mL) pure maple syrup
- 1/2 cup (110-115g) coconut yogurt or other nondairy yogurt
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 – 1 teaspoon orange zest
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pumpkin Bread Directions
- Position a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 350°F/176°C. Grease a standard 9×5 inch loaf pan with oil and line the bottom and sides of the pan with two pieces of parchment paper cut to fit.
- Sift together the all-purpose flour, spelt flour, cornstarch baking soda, pumpkin spice, and salt in a medium bowl and mix well to combine the ingredients. It is important to sift the dry ingredients and combine them well before adding to the wet ingredients. For why, check out the “tips for baking this healthy vegan pumpkin cake” section.
- Pour 1/2 cup liquid from a can of chickpeas (aquafaba) into a small bowl. With an electric mixer, beat the aquafaba on medium speed until it starts to get foamy, 60-90 seconds.
- In a large bowl, add the pumpkin purée, almond butter, coconut sugar, maple syrup, and almond milk. Beat the wet ingredients with the mixer until smooth and very well-combined. Beat in the whipped aquafaba and vanilla to incorporate and until well-combined.
- Place a mesh strainer over the bowl with the liquid ingredients and sift in the dry ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet using a wooden spoon or whisk, taking care to not overmix.
- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 35 minutes. Then tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil to ensure even cooking and prevent premature browning. Continue baking for another 20-30 minutes (total of 55-65 minutes), or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out mostly clean, with just a few crumbs. If the loaf is browning unevenly, you can move it to a lower rack. I recommend checking at 50 or 55 minutes, just to be sure.1. NOTE: If your loaf pan is an 8×4-inch pan (instead of the standard 9×5-inch pan), your loaf will be even thicker due to the smaller pan size, so you might need to bake the loaf a bit longer, closer to 70 minutes.
- Transfer the pumpkin bread to a wire rack to cool. Wait until it is completely cooled (at least 45 minutes, ideally an hour) before slicing. If you cut it too early, the loaf might be a bit underbaked in texture.
- If you made the Cashew Buttercream Frosting, wait until the loaf is cooled to frost it. You can leave the frosted loaf out on the counter for a few hours, but it should be covered and refrigerated after that. If you do not frost the loaf, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store at room temperature (the plastic wrap ensures it stays moist).
Cashew Cream Directions
- Soak the cashews in cool water overnight or in boiling water for 1 hour. Drain the cashews thoroughly and add them to a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix or a food processor. Blend until the cashews are broken up.
- Add the remaining ingredients, staring with just 1/2 teaspoon of the orange zest. Blend on high speed until the texture is as creamy, silky, and smooth as possible, scraping down sides as needed.
- Taste and adjust flavor as needed, adding more orange zest if desired, or maple syrup for sweetness, or more lemon juice for tanginess .
- Transfer the frosting to a medium mixing bowl that has enough space in it so you can whisk it. Place the frosting in the freezer for 30 minutes. Then remove the bowl from the freezer and whisk the frosting. Freeze the frosting for 30 more minutes and then use a hand mixer (or a whisk) to blend it until it’s very thick and spreadable.
- The frosting can stay out of the fridge for several hours before it needs to be refrigerated. If you frost the whole cake, keep it refrigerated. Alternatively, you can frost just the slices of cake you plan to eat now, then store the frosting separately in the fridge.