This weekend I conducted an empirically rigorous taste test of a highly rated Paula Deen pumpkin bar recipe (really a cake) from foodnetwork.com – one version with full fat and one with applesauce substituted for half the oil. My expert testers – four adults and six kids – ruled in favor of the applesauce version. A win all around – both healthier and yummier than the original.
I am health conscious, but I’m not one of these people that wants to make fat-free anything or sneak black beans into brownies. I like my food to maintain its integrity, and I prefer to cook food that isn’t excessively indulgent in its original form. But some recipes are prime candidates for healthy substitutions (whole wheat flour in carrot cake, for example), and I thought applesauce would complement pumpkin here and make for a nutritious substitution without sacrificing flavor.
I’ve never made a Paula Deen recipe before, and I don’t watch much TV. I chose this pumpkin bar recipe after coming across it online because I wanted something rich in pumpkin flavor, and this had a higher pumpkin-to-flour ratio than the many other pumpkin bread recipes I’d seen. I passed on Paula’s cream cheese frosting – several reviewers of the recipe said the cake was just as good unfrosted, and oddly enough my kids don’t like frosting.
I was just going to make an applesauce version, but I figured we’d all wonder how it compared to the original. So I made two half-batches, even though it meant twice as many bowls to wash. This is also a recipe, like my five minute chocolate cake, that makes an unusually large amount of batter. So it was easy to make two smaller cakes.
All-oil vs half-applesauce.
Child labor for mixing.
The applesauce cake was not quite as glossy as the oil cake, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to distinguish a difference after baking. A local bakery in Ohio, Beehive Bread, makes a killer pumpkin bread with chocolate chips that my family loves. So I put chocolate chips on half the applesauce cake so we could conduct a double taste test and also know which was which.
Baked cakes, looking pretty darned identical. I could feel the applesauce cake was slightly springier when I cut it, and the edges did not have the very slight crispness that the all-oil cake had. The interior crumb and color looked the same.
In the taste test, everyone was either neutral on which version they liked best or in favor of the applesauce version. No one preferred the all-oil cake. And even my chocolate fans liked the pumpkin cake better without. It’s that good.
I tested the next day as well, thinking that the all-oil cake might hold up better over time. But we still liked the applesauce version better. I would have continued the longevity test, but the cake didn’t last past the second day.
Pumpkin applesauce cake
Adapted from Paula Deen’s pumpkin bar recipe. A moist cake with fall flavors. Half the fat of the original and just as good.
- 4 eggs
- 1 2/3 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1/2 cup applesauce
- 15-ounce can pumpkin
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, oil, applesauce and pumpkin. Mix well.
- In separate bowl mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
- Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and mix until thoroughly combined and the batter is smooth.
- Spread the batter into a greased 13″x10″ baking pan, or two 8″x8″ baking pans. Bake until toothpick in center comes out clean, 30-40 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar before serving, or cool completely before icing.
- 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine the cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until smooth.
- Add the sugar and mix at low speed until combined.
- Stir in the vanilla and mix again. Spread on cooled pumpkin cake.
- Also make good cupcakes (approximately 24) or a sheet cake in a 10″x15″ jelly roll pan.
- Cake takes well to being cooled in refrigerator.
- Fans of a spicier cake may want to increase the cinnamon or add nutmeg, ginger or cloves to the mix.
Here’s the link to a printable version of the recipe: pumpkin applesauce cake for printing.
Chinese Grandma! Lisa sent me to your stocking stuffer post earlier today and my mom and I have now spent the last 30 mins. exploring and loving all of your additional posts! Fantastic writing, super idea, helpful tips, and delicious recipes! Thanks for sharing your wisdom, wit, and insights! (I finally decided to submit a comment at the end of this post but could have certainly done so on all the others as well!)
lynn @ the actor's diet
thank you for all this testing! i think i’m going to make paula deen’s recipe this weekend sans icing.
hope you like it!
I added 3/4 cups apple sauce instead of 1/2. I added only 1 cup sugar, and a bit less oil as well because of the added apple sauce. That way I prayed the consistency would come out right. Well, it did. And the baby loved it as well as the rest of the family. I also added a cream cheese frosting to the top, again with way less sugar. I added 1/2 powdered sugar along with the butter and vanilla extract, and it turned out just right. Thanks for the recipe.
hi maria – thanks so much for letting everyone know substitutions that worked for you – really helpful!
Would this freeze well??? I have a 28oz can of pumpkin that I want to use, so I was thinking of doubling this recipe…but that’s A LOT of cake!
yes, great for freezing! just wrap it up tight after it’s completely cooled. enjoy!
I am certain you could reduce the sugar to 1 cup….maybe use brown for that extra something. I have been making ALOT of pumpkin cakes, cupcakes, bars, etc.. over the last few weeks (mostly using greek yogurt for less fat and added moistness) and I have had wonderful success reducing sugar to one cup for a 15 oz can. And, Lilian…..I am just intrigued and slightly repulsed by the black beans in brownies so I just know I will have to make it ONE time to see what all the fuss is about;-) I’m wacky like that…LOL!!! Going to make this pumpkin cake version next and will do half with choc. chips just to let the kids weigh in on which they prefer as well. Thanks!!!
Could you bake this cake in a bundt pan?
yes volume should work fine, just keep an eye on it for baking time. these charts are handy: http://allrecipes.com/howto/cake-pan-size-conversions/
Thank you so much for such a prompt response!!!! LOVE YOUR BLOG!
I discovered this recipe (and your blog!) today and just made this lovely cake. It is so delicious – fluffy, sweet, and delicate – and a nice balance of indulgent and light.
I baked two cakes, one in a Pyrex pan and one in a ceramic pan. I used butter as my grease and cooked them at 325 for 30 minutes, then checked every few minutes since they were done at different times. They came out perfectly, and the butter made the edges just the slightest bit crispy.
Thank you for sharing! My one-year-old and four-year-old are happily enjoying the results of this Saturday-afternoon baking adventure.
hi deanna – so great! i love this cake too. thanks so much for sharing your experience, always helpful for future bakers. and i love thinking of your kids enjoying the rewards of baking. =) happy saturday to you!
I just baked this recipe. It is MUCH better than the recipe I’ve been using for more than 35 years. It was quick and easy to make. The texture and flavor are yummy. I would like to make it less sweet. Do you have any recommendations? I see the one above, but am reticent to change so many things. If I put in less sugar, should I add something else? How much do you think I can reduce it without causing a problem? Thank you!
hi carol – you can certainly reduce the sugar. you don’t need to replace it with anything, but just keep in mind that in baking sugar adds moisture as well as sweetness, so your resulting cake may be drier as well. i would try 1 1/3 or 1 1/4 cup sugar to start. good luck!
Just have these in the oven and they look and smell great!!
hi jennifer – i love this recipe! hope you do too. 🙂
Made more adjustments reducing sugar to 1 C; increasing applesauce to 3/4 C; flour 1 C Spelt/ 1C AP; added 1/4 Tsp each ground cloves, powdered ginger, cardamom. Lovely. Baked some with some Halloween sprinkles and most with raw pepitas. Moist and not too sweet. I don’t think I’d frost these at all and may try replacing all the oil with applesauce. Anyone tried that?
Thanks for this!
hi jacqueline – thank you for sharing your variation…love it!