I lost all sense of theme in this month’s blog posts, which ranged from grilling tofu, to induction cooking and canning, to pickling eggs. So I might as well round it out with another random topic: baking with zucchini.
People rarely plant zucchini seeds without later bemoaning the endless crop. It’s hard to plant just the two or three hills recommended for a family and even harder to thin each zucchini hill to a single plant. I watched my dad make this mistake every season and then watched my mom as she stared at a kitchen counter hidden under baseball bat-sized zukes, wondering what to do with them all. Yet year after year, I make the same planting mistake, and although I’m diligent about plucking zucchini when they’re about the thickness of an empty paper towel roll, some always get away.
So every year I eat, process, and give away lots of zucchini. But only recently have I returned to, and improved on, one of my mom’s staples for feeding zucchini to kids: Chocolate Zucchini Cake.
Eating and Preserving Zucchini
I start eating fresh summer squash, both zucchini (courgette) varieties and yellow crookneck, as soon as the first squash are 4–6 inches long. They have the best texture and flavor at this size, and picking them early and often keeps the plant in full production. These little zucchini grill up beautifully.
As the summer squash overload begins, I don’t hesitate to chop off blossoms for stuffing or snipping onto salads. Once the plant starts pumping out more zucchini than we can eat as a grilled side, it’s time to pull out recipes for zucchini-heavy dishes and preserves. These are some of my favorites:
- Zucchini Pancakes
- Zucchini Sesame Bread
- Vegetable Couscous with Chickpeas and Feta
- Top-to-Root Minestrone
- Bruschetta 4 Ways from my digital cookbook The Pickled Picnic
- Bread-and-Butter Zucchini Refrigerator Pickles
- Cumin-Spiced Zucchini Refrigerator Pickles
- Zucchini Relish
- Personal Zucchini Pickles, Herbes de Provence Zucchini, Zucchini Escabeche (Grilled and Pickled Zucchini), and more from my cookbook The Complete Guide to Pickling
Baking with Zucchini
My mom’s favorite way to bake with zucchini was to try to disguise it in chocolate cake and convince two little girls and my sweet-tooth dad it was dessert. But she never fooled us: I could always see and feel the grated zucchini, which resembled shredded toasted coconut, a flavor and texture I dislike to this day.
So I filed away Mom’s cake recipe and began baking zucchini into pancakes, where the grated texture stayed soft and pliable, and into quick bread, which never seemed to have the coarse mouthfeel of my mom’s cake recipe.
It wasn’t until I pulled out the family recipe for chocolate zucchini cake that I realized why: My mom likely used giant zucchini. These probably weren’t just the oversized ones that hide until they’re longer than 8 inches. These were the 2-plus footers with the diameter of a softball that I remember my dad hefting in from the garden.
The clue was in the recipe: “Don’t peel, but remove the seeds.” If a zucchini has seeds so big you need to remove them, chances are the peel is so thick it will never melt away into a cake. Once I realized this and tried her recipe with small zucchini, I found a cake I could love.
Like applesauce and pumpkin, grated zucchini adds moisture to baked goods and can let you cut back on some of the recipe’s other liquids and fats. Small unpeeled zucchini that’s been grated by hand melts away into the batter until it’s unidentifiable. Like my mom, you could use oversized zucchini, removing both the seeds and peel, and you could even shred it in a food processor and then switch blades to give it a quick chop to try to conquer the texture issue. But older zucchini is also drier, and you’ll notice the difference when you start to slice and serve.
Twice as Tasty
For the best zucchini cake, harvest the squash before it hits the 8-inch mark. Gently wash off any dirt and then cut off the ends, leaving the peel and seeds intact. Grate it with a large-holed cheese grater to quickly break down the zucchini’s cells and start releasing their liquid. You could use a food processor instead, but I find that the size of the shredding blade and speed of my machine produce thicker shreds—ones that don’t fully break down in the batter—than grating by hand.
For quick bread, you drain the grated zucchini to improve the crumb. For pancakes, you separate the gratings and liquids and then use some of that liquid in the batter, adding flavor while controlling the pancakes’ thickness. The goal for cake is high moisture, like Layered Chocolate Pudding Cake, so you can put all of the zucchini gratings and any released liquid into the batter.
When you make the batter, don’t be surprised if it’s initially brownie-batter thick: Once you fold in the zucchini, it will become softer, and the zucchini will release even more liquid as the cake bakes. The fibers and carbohydrates in the zucchini flesh and skin help to bind some of that water even as the cells break down enough to disappear.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 3 main ingredients plus a bunch of baking staples.
1. Cream the fats and sugar.
2. Mix the dry ingredients.
3. Combine everything.
4. Bake and enjoy.
Chocolate Zucchini Cake
1/2 cup sunflower or vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Homemade Vanilla Extract
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup Fresh Yogurt, Homemade Sour Cream, or Cultured Buttermilk
1 pound (about three 6- to 8-inch) zucchini, grated (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon powdered sugar for dusting
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, oil, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and powder, salt, cinnamon, and cloves, stirring them together with a fork. Measure out the yogurt or other dairy. In alternating batches, beat the flour and yogurt into the butter mixture. Fold in the zucchini.
Butter a 9- by 13-inch pan. Pour in the batter, smoothing the surface as needed with a spatula. Bake at 325°F for 45–50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Check for doneness, with sides that begin to pull away from the pan an middle that is cooked but springy to the touch. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before dusting with powdered sugar. Makes 16–20 servings.
Tips & Tricks
- If you’re infusing your own vanilla extract or creating homemade dairy, put them to use here. Don’t worry if you don’t have homemade versions; by substituting in store-bought ingredients as needed, you’ll appreciate your homemade ones even more next time. If you’re out of everything but regular milk, you can use my mom’s fake buttermilk instructions: add 1 teaspoon lemon juice to 1/2 cup milk, and let stand 5 minutes.
- When I adapted my family recipe, I did more than just specify smaller zucchini: I bumped up the amount of zukes and chocolate. This recipe is richer and moister than the original, easily balancing the ground spices.
- There’s enough moisture in this cake that cocoa powder works well, but if you’re out you can swap in melted chocolate. Replace all of the cocoa powder with four 4-ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate and drop the oil to 1/4 cup.
- My mom typically made this recipe in a Bundt pan; since I don’t currently own one, I make it snack-cake style in a 9- by 13-inch pan instead. For a fancier cake, pour the batter into two round 8-inch cake pans like you would for Layered Chocolate Pudding Cake, slather homemade jam between the layers, and decorate it with buttercream frosting.
- Growing up, we ate this unfrosted as a snack cake, making it easy to slip into lunchboxes or take to a picnic. It’s moist and sweet enough that it doesn’t need frosting, but a sprinkling of powdered sugar gives it a fancier look. You can use a flour sifter or just spoon the powdered sugar into a fine-mesh colander and stir it gently with the back of a spoon as you wave the colander over the cake.
Get recipes for zucchini pickles plus other fun pickles, salsas, chutneys, and more in my cookbook, The Complete Guide to Pickling. Click here to order a personally signed, packaged, and shipped copy directly from me. I share more tasty treats to serve before zucchini cake in The Pickled Picnic, a digital collection in an easy-to-read PDF format. It’s available exclusively through Twice as Tasty.