Cooking from the Farms: Cake!

One of my favorite books of non-fiction is Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character).  The book, an autobiography told through the life anecdotes of the physicist Richard Feynman, is equal parts serious, scientific, and uproariously funny.  Once upon a time I would read chapters to my young children before bedtime, during periods of their lives when I thought they needed to hear that being smart and curious and interested in the workings of the world was cool, no matter that their peers were telling them otherwise.

From a very young age, Richard Feynman puzzled over things.  The radios he fixed as a child, earning him the distinction in his neighborhood of being the boy who fixed radios by thinking, led to work in quantum mechanics at Cal Tech and the development of atomic bombs in Los Alamos.  A life spent thinking resulted in answers to big questions.

I’m a bit of a tenacious puzzler of questions and problems too, although – trust me – no genius physicist.  Physics was my worst class in high school and I changed my college major midstream to avoid taking it a second time.  Still, most of us face practical problems requiring solutions over the course of a day or week and we can either wring our hands over them with worry or we can set our minds to finding answers.  I like to think of myself as a problem solver instead of a problem identifier.

That I often make up problems or challenges for myself to conquer, in addition to the regular wrinkles life throws my way, may qualify me as a masochistic oddball.  Or just show me to be, like all the dedicated problem solvers before me, a really curious character.  Your call.

Today I got one really big zucchini at Heron Pond Farm.

Over the past few weeks of zucchini season I’ve done all the savories I could think of:  a squash casserole, ratatouille, fritters, zucchini simply sliced and grilled.  You name it, I’ve cooked it.  Then someone mentioned making loaf after loaf of zucchini bread with their garden bounty of zucchini and I realized I hadn’t baked a single sweet using zucchini.

For someone who loves carrot cake and pumpkin and banana breads, I never really got into zucchini bread.  It has always seemed kind of – forgive me –­ a little too homespun and earnest for my taste.  Already I can hear the chorus of  “excuse me, what about carrot cake?”  True, carrot cake is homespun, but carrot cake often gets embellished with those little marzipan garnishes; people turn refined versions of it into wedding cakes; it can be gussied.  Who gussies up zucchini bread?

But because I am one of those curious characters I mentioned earlier, the kind that likes to give herself little tasks because obviously she has way too much time on her hands, I did a little digging.  And reading.  Lo and behold, there is a zucchini cake, most often made with chocolate, and chocolate is after all one of the most gussifying of all substances, right up there with fresh berries and gold dust.  The concept of a chocolate zucchini cake was promising.

But all the cakes I came across were one layer, unfrosted, snacking style cakes, the kind that my mother used to whip up in a 9 X 13-inch pan and have waiting for us, cut into squares, when we came home from school.  Every one of the recipes I read included nuts (so homespun) and chocolate chips (ibid).  I wanted a cake, a fancy and refined cake that some chocoholic could request with pride as a wedding cake.

I fixed the chocolate zucchini cake by thinking.

Dark Chocolate Zucchini Layer Cake

I quickly zeroed in on three recipes for chocolate zucchini cake: one from King Arthur Flour, one from Bon Appetit, and one from the food blog called (not surprisingly) Chocolate & Zucchini.  All three used essentially the same basic ingredients in the same proportions, turning out a single layer cake made with nuts or chocolate chips or both.

The following version is a morphing of those three but as I said, I wanted refined, not chunky, so I axed nuts altogether.  I did, however, like the idea of additional bitter or semi sweet chocolate.  In my version, the chocolate is melted and folded into the creamed butter and egg mixture.

Another stumbling block to reaching a refined cake was, I felt, the texture of shredded zucchini itself.  As I remembered back to zucchini cakes I’d tasted in the past, and even to versions of carrot cakes and morning glory muffins that I like, I knew that a coarse shred meant that the zucchini would be apparent in the cake.  To guarantee the zucchini would melt into the batter, I used the fine shredding side of my box grater.

The true test came when I asked my kids to taste the cake.  They had no idea I had put zucchini in, and it wasn’t my intention to trick them into eating their vegetables.  But I did want to get an assessment of the cake as a chocolate cake rather than a health food, so I guess I tricked them a little bit.

The recipe calls for a small amount of black cocoa powder, which is a King Arthur Flour product.  If you do not have this, a total of ¾ cups of dutch process cocoa is a fine substitute.

  • 2 ¼ cups all purpose flour, sifted
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. dutch process cocoa powder
  • 2 Tbsp. black cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. espresso powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup (4 ounces) vegetable oil
  • 1 ¾ cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 ounces bittersweet (60%) chocolate, melted
  • ½ cup (4 ounces) sour cream
  • 2 cups shredded zucchini (approximately one 12-ounce zucchini)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare two 8-inch round cake layer pans by buttering then flouring them.  Set aside.

Measure the flour then sift it.

Then sift the flour together with all the cocoa, espresso powder…

… and the baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl.  Set the dry ingredients aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the sugar, butter, and vegetable oil on medium speed until well blended.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Add the vanilla extract and blend.  Add the melted chocolate and blend to incorporate.

Using medium low speed, mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture alternately with the sour cream in three additions, blending well after each and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Fold the grated zucchini into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly between two baking pans.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until the top of the cake springs back when touched and a tester inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean.  Allow layers to cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then invert and cool completely on wire racks.

Frost with your favorite vanilla or chocolate buttercream frosting.

I make a mean buttercream frosting, but no one should look to me for cake decorating tips.  As with physics, cake decorating is not a strong suit.  When I worked at Quebrada Bakery, they let me bake the cakes but quite wisely left the decorating up to Tiffany and Martha and Claire.

But I did learn a few helpful tips, such as the crumb coat and the efficacy of a cake comb, so I’ll show you a little of the cake’s assembly in case these tips may be helpful to you as well.

Spreadable is the name of the game with buttercream.  Invest in a good offset spatula for applying frosting to the cake.

Place one cake layer on a cake stand that has been lined along the sides with strips of parchment to catch drips and crumbs.  Put a good amount of frosting on the top of this layer for the filling, then place the second layer on top.

Apply a thin layer of frosting all over the cake to seal in crumbs and keep them from showing through in your finished, decorated cake.  This is called the crumb coat.  Chill the cake with crumb coat for a few minutes before applying the outer covering of frosting.

I hardly ever crack out the pastry bags and decorating tips for a cake; I just never mastered the fine art of swirls and swags and rosettes.  Cake combs, though, come in a variety of sizes and patterns and  will make any kind of decorative line from straight to squiggly just by drawing it lightly through the frosting.

©2010  Jane A. Ward