On Unfrosted Cake

Growing up, we had one cake. This one. I mean, of course we ate other cakes: coffee cake was a breakfast time treat, and Mom made other recipes (plus there was that one boxed coconut cake from Sara Lee that came out of the freezer every so often), but this simple chocolate cake, a variant of the Depression era wacky cake or crazy cake, was the standby for celebrations. And though the original recipe called for a thick, sweet buttercream, we always frosted it with lightly sweetened whipped cream instead, artfully (or sometimes something less than artfully) swirled on with a knife or a rubber spatula or, if someone was feeling really fancy, an offset metal spatula that got just so close to the bakery-smooth finish I, at least, was always after.

So as you might expect, as I “leveled up” in the kitchen I tried some fancier finishes (though for THE cake I always went back to the whipped cream). I found the perfect cream cheese frosting recipe. I flirted with buttercreams of various kinds, and with varying success.

Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating the simple pleasure of unfrosted cakes. I don’t know if this is a result of binge-watching so much Great British Baking Show, on which the Victoria sandwiches are simply dusted with sugar, but there is something satisfying about plonking down a cake that you haven’t spent time fussing over.

I’ve made three unfrosted cakes of note recently. The first is an almond cake recipe from King Arthur Flour. I did this almost exactly as the site required, subbing in some almond meal for some of the almond flour, a move that I think was a good one, and now has me looking for places to add almond meal for flavor and texture (stay tuned on this for cookies…). The recipe also taught me an interesting twist on pan preparation, requiring a dusting of sugar instead of flour atop the butter or non-stick spray layer. This results in a lovely, crunchy sugar coating on the bottom and sides of the cake (though the bottom usually ends up not noticeable) and, if you have the presence of mind to add it 15 minutes or so before the baking time ends, on the top as well.

The second unfrosted cake I’ve made recently was a recipe from Tara Jensen’s cookbook/journal/mini-memoir A Baker’s Year. She calls it “groomsman cake,” celebrating the man she met at a friend’s wedding who entered her life with curiosity and bourbon. I may have overbaked mine a tad, since the resulting bundt was a bit less tender than I was expecting, but it was nothing a tumble of raspberries and a heaping scoop of whipped cream – my current favorite combination for cakes without frosting – couldn’t amend.

Finally, in a major blast from the past, I made a rum cake from deep in my mom’s recipe archives for a viewing party last weekend. “Why rum cake?” Mom asked, and the answer was more about linguistic cleverness than anything else: because if you make the cake using Bacardi, then you can call it “lightly thematic” because the brand name so resembles that of a certain former Starfleet captain now back on screen and invested in returning to the galaxy out there… This was not only nostalgic in the sense that I pulled it forward into the 21st century (or 24th?), but in its composition: boxed yellow cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A boiled sugar glaze. For the second time in recent cakery, a bundt pan. And Rum Cake? This cake means it. A full cup of dark rum, half baked into the tender sponge itself (which emerges a shocking dandelion yellow topped with toasty chopped pecans), and the other half stirred into that boiled glaze and drizzled slowly over the cake until it has all absorbed. When show-and-cake-time arrived, I pulled off the layer of aluminum foil I’d dressed the cake in for travel and was caught off guard by the heady fumes that rushed out. Fortunately we had a full hour of show to enjoy before anyone drove home.

Despite that leftovers of this cake need to be enjoyed more in the 3:30pm hour than in the 10:30 snack slot (and despite my snobby concerns about its less-than-from-scratch ingredient list), it is delicious. Tender. Moist (how could it not be?). Beautiful flavors, and the aggressiveness of the rum somehow mellowed overnight, though the kick lingers. And that makes it even better as a party option: you can – you should – make it the afternoon before, giving you less to fret about on the day of whatever gathering it’s invited to.

Of course, an unfrosted cake requires less dressy fuss in terms of presentation, too. No fancy cake pedestals necessary. A large plate, a simple platter, even a wooden cutting board will do, especially if you can add a stack of plates, forks, and a knife to it, so the moment you bring the cake to the table is the only one needed to get everyone eating.

Tell me. Are you a frosted or unfrosted fan? What’s your current favorite flavor combination, or serving vessel, or cake variety, that makes the buttercream and the fondant and the cream cheese feel unneeded? Leave a comment here and let’s talk cake!

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries (now with post and recipe!)

This past summer, we did not grow zucchini. Still traumatized by the various baseball bats we had to consume the previous year, N. flatly refused it. He couldn’t find the humor even in my joke that we would only grow a small one… Needless to say, no zucchini graced our table this summer.

But I missed it. In particular, I missed my favorite zucchini bread recipe, a cinnamon-spiced affair with an appealingly-crusty top but still-moist center from The Bon Appétit Cookbook that I’ve made probably at least a dozen times. It’s lightly sweet, it’s not overwhelmingly, well, zucchini flavored, and you don’t even have to squeeze out the grated squash before adding it to the mixture. In fact, you shouldn’t; the recipe relies on some of that wetness to attain the correct consistency. Buying zucchini from the grocery store to put toward this purpose just didn’t seem right – this was, as the book itself declares, a recipe designed for a zucchini harvest.

So when one of my coworkers advertised her bounty, I suggested that I’d be willing to take one of her prolific squashes off of her hands, and as a result I received a delivery at least as long as my forearm. Yes. This meant zucchini bread. To keep myself interested, in this incarnation I not only included the deeply toasted chopped walnuts the recipe calls for, but subbed in some almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour to add extra nuttiness and – not that this recipe needs it – assured moisture. I also added my most recent baking obsession: a generous few handfuls of tart dried cherries. And then, since just a loaf will never do, I made four. And I still had a chunk of zucchini left that’s probably still at least 6-7 inches long.

This recipe calls for two cups of grated zucchini. And that seems like a lot, until you realize it really only takes one reasonably sized squash to make that amount. So here I’m offering a recipe for two loaves, since if you’re facing down a bed-full of zucchini, that’s the least you’ll want to make. They freeze beautifully too, so you can sock away a loaf or two until you, or your family, or your neighbors, are feeling zucchini-receptive again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, just in case the end pieces feel a little dry, toasting and adding a generous smear of cream cheese is revelatory.

 

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries
Adapted (barely) from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves 9x5x3 inch loaves
2 cups chopped walnuts
6 large eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini, not squeezed
2½ cups dried tart cherries, such as Montmorency

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, scatter the walnuts on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven to toast. The nuts should go about two shades darker brown and look slightly oily when you take them out. Once nicely toasted, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare two metal loaf pans by spraying with non-stick cooking spray or rubbing with butter or oil.
  • Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer, beat the eggs in a large bowl until they are foamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, then beat until the mixture is very thick and pale. This takes a good 3-4 minutes. Slowly beat in the oil, then the vanilla.
  • In another bowl, whisk together the flour, the almond meal, the salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low speed, beat in this dry mixture in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between.
  • Gently fold in the walnuts and cherries to ensure even distribution. The batter will be extremely thick. Don’t despair! Fold in the zucchini (it will be almost too much for a standard stand mixer, but it will fit. Mostly). The batter will loosen up considerably as the grated pieces release moisture.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake at 350F until the top is dry and crusty, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean. This pretty dependably takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool the loaf for at least 5 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.

King Arthur Flour (Cherry) Brownies

For several years now, I’ve been pursuing the perfect brownie. Most brownie aficionados battle over fudgy vs. cakey or center vs. edge (speaking of which, are you aware of this piece of kitchen equipment?). My quest, though, is all about the flaky, shiny top. The perfect brownie, for me (aside from being fudgy-but-not-too-fudgy-and-definitely-a-center-piece-thanks-very-much), has a deep chocolate flavor, fairly dense texture, but then a crispy, wafer-like layer that magically forms during baking and, once cool, reflect the light back as you gaze lovingly at it before gobbling it up.

But the recipes I’ve tried don’t always have that result. I’ve definitely accomplished the deep, rich chocolate flavor, but the shiny top crust eludes me. I’ve tried suggestions to beat the eggs a long time, getting them really foamy, and I’ve read several ideas about chocolate chips, rather than unsweetened chocolate, as the source of the flaky shine. I haven’t yet achieved it myself, though.

But as of last weekend, I’ve come really close. There was a hint of a top layer, just barely flaky, and though it wasn’t consistently shiny, I could see the barest shimmer in a few spots. Like the tarte au citron au David Lebovitz a few months ago, this isn’t my recipe. It’s from King Arthur Flour. But I’m offering a suggestion or two and one very worthwhile addition, so that ideally our next pan of brownies comes out perfect.

KAF relies on two sources of chocolate in their mix: unsweetened cocoa powder, and the aforementioned chocolate chips. It seems the chips add just enough additional fat and sugar to the mix to help form that flaky sheen as the brownies bake. KAF also requires you to melt the butter and partially dissolve the sugar before bringing the batter together. It’s a little extra work, but getting the sugar dissolved faster is evidently part of the magic.

The recipe I’m linking to below suggests melting the butter, then stirring in the sugar and bringing it up to 110-120F, mixing that into the egg and cocoa mixture you’ve already created, and then dumping in flour, 2 cups of chocolate chips, and stirring “until smooth.” I surmised this means until the chips have melted into the rest of the mixture, but for me, by the time I was stirring in the chips the rest of the batter had cooled down enough that there wasn’t enough residual heat to melt them, and I didn’t want to keep mixing lest I start developing the gluten in the flour and end up with tough brownies. So next time, and what you might try in the meantime, is to add the chips right into the melted butter and sugar mixture. Stir them up to get them good and melted before combining with the rest of the ingredients. Maybe that, at long last, will produce the shattering shininess I’ve been craving.

One other adjustment to KAF’s already delicious recipe: for added interest and to cut sweetness a bit, I dumped in a heaping cup of tart dried cherries along with the chips and flour. My tasters found this an extremely worthwhile addition; studded with tart little pops, the brownies become more complex in flavor, and the cherries plump a little during baking and stay moist for several days afterward. I considered steeping the cherries in brandy for a half hour or so before mixing them in, but one of my taste testers is pregnant, so this time around I skipped the booze and was perfectly satisfied.

You can find the King Arthur Flour recipe I worked with here.

If you would like to add cherries, as I did, mix 1 heaping cup of tart dried cherries (such as Montmorency) into the batter along with the flour, then proceed as in the KAF recipe.

Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.

Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Date and Orange Tea Loaf

When we started talking about our theme for Christmas food this year (what? Your family doesn’t theme your holiday dinner? Weird.), we quickly lit on the concept of “spiced,” in part inspired by a gingerbread trifle idea I have for dessert. N., who is not a kitchen maven but does like to be able to contribute, lit up when he heard this concept and said, “I could make a winter spiced beer!” (oops, don’t read this, family; it’s supposed to be a surprise…) My brain immediately went crazy imagining flavor pairings. Weirdly, the first one I came up with was dates and orange, which doesn’t contain any “spice” components at all. We decided that in beer, that might be a little strange, but the combination stuck and simmered.

Dates and orange sounded, upon further reflection, like a duo for a loaf cake, in the vein of banana bread or zucchini bread: not too sweet, equally suitable for breakfast or mid-afternoon. I put my mom on a research mission, imagining such a pairing might show up in one of her old cookbooks. It sounded like a classic, and so right for the approaching winter holidays. The closest she found was an orange and walnut loaf (in, weirdly enough, exactly the cookbook I’d been thinking of when I offered up the assignment), so she sent me the recipe and I started to play.

Walnuts and orange sounded nice, but the recipe Mom sent had an awful lot of orange juice in it, and simply replacing the chopped walnuts with the fruit didn’t seem quite sufficient. Since I was already thinking about thick slices served with tea, I was reminded of my barm brack all studded with dried fruit that had soaked in tea for some time before getting kneaded into the bread itself. That seemed the thing to do here as well. Dates are such sugar bombs, so an hour’s steep in hot tea, with some orange juice as well for good measure, would temper the sweetness and impart some extra moisture just in case.

With that sorted, I replaced some of the granulated sugar with brown sugar, swapped the oil in the recipe for a touch more melted butter, opted for chopped orange peel instead of orange zest for aesthetics and the occasional bitter, marmalade-esque bite, and decided to top the loaf with chopped walnuts and hazelnuts. As a last minute decision and a nod to the original “spiced” concept that planted the idea, I tossed in some cardamom. So, in short, I completely changed the recipe. Oops. It happens.

And I’m glad it did, because despite concerns about quantity – the batter was only enough to fill my loaf pan halfway – and overcooking – it ended up taking about ten minutes longer than I’d expected – this was easily the best baked good I’ve made in a while. The texture is moist and compact but still bouncy, a bit more elastic than a banana bread, and studded with meaty chunks of dates that have plumped and softened during their bath and long bake. The tea flavor is not immediately obvious, but blends pleasantly with the other orange components. I tend not to like chopped nuts inside a loaf like this, but this layer across the top is perfect for a touch of crunch that doesn’t disrupt the even-textured, pleasantly-dense interior. They toast nicely while the loaf bakes (if they seem to be getting a bit dark, cover lightly with a layer of aluminum foil during the last 10-15 minutes of baking), and the nutty flavor adds depth to the rich sweetness of the cake itself.

Originally, I had planned to take this loaf to school with me as a gift for the first twelve or so people to come into the mailroom in the morning. N. has historically not been fond of dates (it’s a texure thing, I think), so he wasn’t feeling too enthused about the outcome and I certainly don’t need to eat the whole thing myself. When, however, I had talked myself down from another full slice to just eating half of the end piece as a second helping, and when I offered N. a few bites on his way through the house and he turned all the way around to receive the rest, I realized there was just no way I could let this loaf leave the premises. Not with the pre-Thanksgiving week I’m about to have. Sorry, work family. Next time, I promise! In the meantime, treat yourself to this one. You won’t be sorry.

Date and Orange Tea Loaf
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 2½ hours (including 1 hour steeping time for the dates)
8 ounces pitted, chopped medjool dates
¾ cup boiling water
1 earl grey tea bag
peel of 1 orange (remove in wide strips with a potato peeler)
¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice from 1 orange
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cardamom
1 egg
4 tablespoons melted butter
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts

 

  • First, brew the tea: pour the hot water over the tea bag in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Steep for 1-2 minutes. Use the time to remove the orange peel in thick strips with a potato peeler; reserve these for later. Add the orange juice and the chopped dates to the brewed tea. Stir, then let sit for at least an hour.
  • While you wait, use a thin bladed knife to carefully remove the pith from the strips of orange peel. Mince, or slice across into thin threads as in the photo above, whichever you prefer. I found I wanted the threads for more orange presence.
  • When the hour (or however long you decide to let the dates steep) is almost up, preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and reserved orange peel.
  • With a slotted spoon or small strainer with a handle, remove the dates from the tea and orange juice mixture (reserve the liquid! We still need that). Let them drip briefly, then use your fingers to break them up (they will all stick together) and drop them into the dry ingredient mixture. Use a rubber spatula or your hands to mix them in, taking care to separate them as much as possible. Tossing them with the flour can help them stay evenly integrated in the loaf while it bakes, rather than clumping or all sinking to the bottom.
  • Add the egg and the melted butter to the reserved tea and orange juice and whisk to combine. Pour this wet mixture into the dry mixture all at once and fold together with a rubber spatula just until no white streaks of flour remain. At first it will not seem like enough liquid, but suddenly it will all come together into a reasonably thick, muffin-like batter.
  • Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in an even layer over the top, then bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center of the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs (don’t put the toothpick through the central crack in the top; this will give you a falsely undercooked reading. Aim for about a half inch off). If the nuts look like they are getting too dark, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top during the last 10-15 minutes of baking.
  • Cool at least 30 minutes before turning out of the pan, then another 30 minutes before slicing. I know it’s a long time to wait, but trust me. The loaf needs a little time to establish structural integrity. Serve warm, or cool, if you can make it that long, perhaps with a cup of tea.

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