Spice Cake with Penuche Frosting


Everyone has their favorite birthday cake. Growing up, mine was Lithuanean coffee cake — a dense, cinnamon-swirled, buttercream-smothered dessert from Claire’s Corner Copia in New Haven, CT.  My dad has always preferred a simple vanilla with vanilla frosting. According to my brother, he doesn’t like cake (wait, what?!). And my mom? This moist, delicate spice cake with a dreamy penuche frosting.

The fact that this is my mom’s favorite cake, despite her general inclination for chocolate, should tell you something. The cake itself is everything warm and fragrant, tender and not too sweet, filled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cocoa. But the frosting, my mother declares, is what really makes it. Creamy, caramelly, and filled with brown sugar. Almost like a pecan praline…but you know, on top of a cake.

Spice Cake with Penuche Frosting
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8-10
A fragrant, spiced cake with a dreamy caramel frosting. Depending on your preferences, you may want to double the recipe for the frosting. It's hard to have too much!
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp cardamom
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1¾ - 2 cups confectioners' sugar
  1. For the spice cake:
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Have all ingredients at room temperature. Grease two 8- or 9-inch cake pans. In a mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. Set aside.
  3. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Bean in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Add in flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, beating well after each addition.
  4. Pour batter into prepared cake pans and tap pans on counter to make sure batter is evenly distributed in pans. Bake until top is golden brown and tester inserted into centers comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. The cake will start to pull away from the pan when it's done. Set cake pans on a wire rack; let cool for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the pan perimeters and turn cakes onto rack. Let cool completely before frosting.
  5. For the penuche frosting:
  6. Melt butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low, stirring continuously for 2 minutes. Stir in milk. Return to a boil, stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Allow mixture to cool to lukewarm temperature, then gradually stir in confectioners' sugar until frosting has reached your desired consistency. For a thicker frosting, add more sugar; to thin it out, you can always add a bit of milk. Fill and frost the cooled cake. Enjoy!


  • What a lovely cake! I think I would enjoy a slice with a cuppa tea.

    • Grace

      Doesn’t get much better than that!

  • This is gorgeous!!

    • Grace

      Thanks so much, Irene!

  • Looks wonderful! I’ve never hard of penuche frosting before, but it looks lovely! :)

    • Grace

      It’s addictive! Not going to lie, I definitely had a spoonful or two of it while I was icing this bad boy…

  • This looks beautiful :) Im not surprised its your mums favourite, it looks like something that would be right up my mums street too. May well put it to the test!

    • Grace

      Thanks, Sasha! I may be biased, but I think your mom would like it :)

  • This looks divine!

  • That is one beautiful cake.

  • Grace

    Jennifer & Kathryn – Thank you! Probably not as pretty as my grandmother would make it, but what can you do!

  • this looks phenomenal! and easy enough to try.

    i’d like to ask, though- could i substitute something besides sour cream (or cream cheese)- i’m not a fan of either, and would hate to have it overshadow such a delicious cake.

    The Mr. and i have recently discovered dulce de leche ice cream- and this seems like a wonderful caramelly dessert, too!

    • Grace

      Hi, mpotter! Honestly, I don’t think you would know there was sour cream in the cake unless you saw the recipe – it definitely doesn’t taste tangy or anything like that. If you want to play it safe though, you could substitute plain yogurt. Let me know if you end up giving it a try!

      P.S. I LOVE dulce de leche anything, but dulce de leche icecream sounds particularly amazing!

      • Janice

        Am I missing something? I don’t see sour cream listed in the ingredients here.

        • Grace

          Hi Janice, I was fooling with this recipe some and actually changed it so it no longer includes sour cream… and I think it’s better now! Sorry for the confusion! :)

  • Wow, this cake sounds and looks utterly delicious! I’ve never heard of penuche icing before, but it sounds rather amazing.

  • Hm

    Can I use plain flour for the cake?

    • Grace

      Definitely! The cake flour makes the texture a little lighter, but the difference is pretty subtle and it will still be great with all-purpose flour.

  • I found your blog via the Chicago Tribune article. Wow this level of traffic in one year? amazing.
    I don’t have foodie theme on my blog but I would eat that spicy cake in a minute. Congrats on the hard work of getting your blog going so quickly.

    • Grace

      Lisleman- Thank you so much for the kind words, it means a lot!

  • This cake was delicious, and I’m not a big cake fan. I loved the consistency and flavor.

    • Grace

      Yes!! Glad you liked it, Julie.

  • Kelly

    Ok, I’ve made the cakes, and will make the frosting in a few minutes.. I’ll tell you what, if it tastes half as good as it smells, YUMMM!! I’d like this aroma year round! Quick question: it said to ‘pour batter into cake pans’.. mine wasn’t exactly ‘pour’able. The cakes turned out ok, a bit flat, but still nice layers. Did I do something wrong? I checked all my steps and I didn’t miss any ingredients. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • Kathy

    Love, love, love penuche frosting and candy! So glad to have found your recipe and will make it soon. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Cathy

    I made this cake for my daughter’s wedding and it was a great hit. The cake is wonderful with full flavor!

  • This sounds incredible! I’m just wondering – your post mentions cocoa, but I don’t see it in the ingredient list…just want to make sure I’m not missing something before I make it. Thanks!

    • Grace

      Hi Anna, good catch! That’s a mistake on my end, which I’ve now corrected (the recipe is good to go). Thanks so much for the comment!

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  • Bob

    This is my favorite cake of all.
    My mother started making it for me when I was a little boy in the fifties.
    We just bake a Duncan Hines spice cake in an oblong pan that has a plastic snap on lid.
    We use the penuche frosting recipe on page 85 of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. We do add a teaspoon of vanilla. The recipe is similar to those here. I also make extra frosting, usually one and a half times the recipe.
    Yum. It is addicting.

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  • Nicolle

    Do you use dark or light Brown Sugar?

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