These pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting are a must every fall – they’re easy to make and feature pumpkin puree, cinnamon, and olive oil for a soft texture, with tangy cream cheese frosting on top. This is a smaller batch, less sweet version of the traditional recipe and fits in a 9×9 or 8×8 inch square pan.
The first Thanksgiving I spent with my husband Brian’s family, way back in 2009 when we were still in college, his mom Colleen made pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting for dessert. I’d never had them before — I’m not sure how that’s possible but it’s true — and they blew me away.
The combination of soft, gently spiced pumpkin cake bars and super smooth cream cheese frosting made for a dessert that everyone would sneak little pieces of throughout the day…and sometimes for breakfast. Colleen has made them many times since and they’re quite simply irresistible.
Recipe Inspiration: A Smaller Batch
I knew I wanted to feature a version of her recipe on here, but it took me a while to figure out how to scale it down. The original, like most pumpkin bar recipes, makes a huge batch and calls for a 10×15 inch jelly roll pan. That’s great when you have a crowd of people to feed at Thanksgiving, but not so great when there’s just two of you in one little apartment, staring down a concerning number of pumpkin bars all day.
I determined that based on volume, the best way to cut the recipe in half would be to use a 9×9 inch square pan. This would allow the pumpkin bars to remain spread out and shorter than a cake would be. To be honest, there’s very little difference between pumpkin bars and pumpkin cake; the height is the main factor, and pumpkin bars are supposed to be slightly denser and less fluffy than cake.
But they’re basically little cake bars. And we love them for it.
You could use an 8×8 inch square pan if that’s what you have on hand, but know that your bars will be much thicker due to the smaller pan, and the bake time will be longer. It will be pumpkin cake. And that’s ok! I give instructions in the recipe if that’s what you choose to do.
- Pumpkin puree. Use the totally unsweetened canned pumpkin, NOT pumpkin pie filling. Many people say you can only use Libby’s because it’s thicker and less watery but I used Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and a random store brand in my tests, all to equal effectiveness.
- Brown sugar. Just 1/2 a cup will do it. Did you know brown sugar is just granulated sugar mixed with molasses? The molasses provides moisture and flavor, and pairs well with pumpkin. I reduced the sugar significantly from most pumpkin bar recipes and you will not miss it, I promise.
- Olive oil. I decided to use olive oil instead of the typical canola or vegetable oil. You can use extra virgin or refined, and you won’t notice the flavor. If you prefer, melted butter or coconut oil would work too.
- Egg. Two, for structure.
- Vanilla extract. Flavor!
- Cinnamon only. I actually think the flavor of these pumpkin bars is better with just cinnamon, no pumpkin pie spice. You can certainly use it if you’d prefer, but I like the nostalgic and pure pumpkin flavor from using cinnamon only!
- CREAM CHEESE FROSTING. Need I say more? Well, I’ll say a little more – this is a reduced sugar, seriously tangy cream cheese frosting and it is SO good with the soft pumpkin bars. Seriously, if you thought you didn’t like cream cheese frosting or thought it was too sweet in the past, try this one. It will change your mind.
How to Make Pumpkin Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting: Step by Step
This isn’t going to take long to explain, and that’s what I love about this recipe. No mixer needed for the cake part!
- Whisk dry ingredients. Flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt in a medium bowl.
- Whisk wet ingredients. Oil, brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin puree, vanilla in a large bowl.
- Combine! Stir the dry into the wet JUST until combined and no flour pockets remain – the batter might still be a little lumpy, but that’s better than dry and tough pumpkin bars (this happens if you overdevelop the gluten by stirring too much).
- Bake. Since these are thinner, you only need about 25 minutes in a 9×9 inch pan. It’s done when the cake springs back and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. An 8×8 inch pan will take closer to 30 minutes and will result in much thicker bars.
- Cool, then frost! Whip up the cream cheese frosting while the bars are cooling. I use my hand mixer and it takes 3 minutes!
Tips and Common Questions
Yes, but the bars will be much thicker – it will basically be a pumpkin cake (not a bad thing, just different!). The bake time will also be longer, 28-32 minutes.
Unfrosted pumpkin bars are fine at room temperature for up to 3 days. Frosted pumpkin bars should be stored covered in the fridge and will last up to 5 days.
Yes! You can freeze the baked pumpkin bars frosted or unfrosted. Make sure they are completely cooled, and chilled if they are frosted so the frosting can firm up first. Tightly wrap in plastic and store in a freezer bag for up to 3 months. When ready to eat, thaw overnight in the fridge and then eat cold or let come to room temperature before serving.
I can’t wait for you to try these pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting. They’re a fall dessert I look forward to every single year and every time I have them, I wonder why pumpkin isn’t a year-round food. They barely lasted three days here and I challenge you to keep them around any longer than that!
More Pumpkin Recipes
- Easy Pumpkin Spice Muffins
- Spiced Pumpkin Bundt Cake
- Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread
- Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies with Maple Glaze
- Baked Pumpkin Donuts with Maple Glaze
Pumpkin Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 9×9 inch square pan
For the Pumpkin Bars:
- 1 cup (125g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon (or pumpkin pie spice)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil (or any neutral oil, or melted butter)
- 1/2 cup (100g) brown sugar, packed
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup (195g) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Cream Cheese Frosting
- 4 ounces (113g) cream cheese, cold
- 1/4 cup (56g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup (90g) powdered sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (or vanilla bean paste for specks of vanilla!)
- Pinch salt
- Preheat your oven to 350°F (177°C). Line a 9×9 inch square pan with parchment paper or grease it, and set aside. Note: you can use an 8×8 inch square pan instead, but the bars will be thicker and bake time will be longer.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin puree, and vanilla until well-combined and smooth. Gently stir in the dry ingredients until no pockets of flour remain, but do not overmix. The batter may be a bit lumpy and that's ok!
- Pour batter into greased or parchment-lined pan. Bake for 23-25 minutes for a 9×9 inch pan, or 28-32 minutes for an 8×8 inch pan, until the top springs back when tapped and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.
For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
- In a large bowl using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or a hand mixer, beat cream cheese and butter at high speed until pale and very fluffy – this should take 2-3 minutes. You want to incorporate as much air as possible into the mixture to make it light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt, and beat at medium to high speed until fully combined and light.
- Spread cooled pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting (you can either use the parchment paper to lift them out before frosting, or frost them in the pan). It should make a thick layer, and can be swirled in pretty patterns with an offset spatula (I like this one). Dust with cinnamon if desired. Cut into bars and serve!