Friday, July 27, 2012

Super Zucchini Bread with Lemon, Walnut and Basil

In Vermont, we like to joke that the reason to lock your car in the summer isn't because someone might steal it, but because someone might leave a bushel of zucchini in the front seat. Delicate little fruits grow into baseball bats overnight and invite four or five friends along, too. My childhood memories of zucchini have as much to do with using them for benches and dressing them up in doll clothes as they do with actually eating them. Local fairs in zucchini-prone areas often turn up with events like best-dressed zucchini contests or zucchini races (see above). There's still plenty left over to eat. Besides, who's to say you can't eat your winning car?

For all that they are abundant to the point of ubiquity around here in the summer, I don't actually get tired of eating them. Zucchini (and all of its summer squashy cohort) are ridiculously versatile and, in a number of dishes, seem to vanish entirely (chefs for the vegetable-averse, take note). Zucchini bread is a good example of this.

My dad requested a good zucchini bread recipe the other day, specifically one that wasn't too sweet and used a lot of zucchini. A great many zucchini bread recipes really load up on sugar (and fat, for that matter). The top result for "zucchini bread" on Google contains 3 cups of sugar and 1 cup of oil to 2 cups of zucchini and 3¼ cups of flour in two loaves. That's a sugar-heavy ratio even by cake standards, and a disappointingly low zucchini content.

Reading through a number of other recipes gave me a picture of how other people's zucchini breads were put together. I made a table of the amounts of the essential ingredients (zucchini, flour, sugar, fat, egg, baking powder, baking soda) in about 10 recipes to compare and came up with a core structural plan.

Looking beyond the structural core of these recipes though, I noticed that most of the palette of flavors that folks added were almost identical to those you would use if you were making this with winter squash: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, vanilla. There's a reason these are standard: it's a tasty combo for any number of quickbreads, and I didn't really think too much about it until considering two of the recipes. The first was a Lemon-Rosemary Zucchini bread, which swapped the pumpkin pie spice for a bright, bold, herbal flavor, somewhat more like the seasonings you would use if you were cooking a zucchini dish rather than a zucchini pastry. The other was a Zucchini Cake posted by dessert guru David Lebovitz, adapted from a recipe by Gina DePalma. This was the first recipe to achieve my goal of more zucchini than flour, but one of the ways it did so was by replacing some of the flour with ground walnuts. The other intriguing thing it did was to use olive oil for part of the fat, which works in with the theme of flavors you would expect in a savory zucchini dish.

As impressed as I was by the boldness of the rosemary, it didn't quite fit into how I imagined the dish. Also, I didn't have any. On the other hand, I did just pick some lemon basil earlier in the day, which I would be, if anything, more inclined to use when cooking zucchini. Between the olive oil, walnuts, lemon and basil, it makes for a seasoning palette that works uniquely well for zucchini, if about a clove of garlic away from pesto. I'm comfortable with that.

Super Zucchini Bread with Lemon, Walnut and Basil

makes one 4x8" loaf
prep time: 15 min
bake time: 45 min

    Wet Mix:

  • 1½ c. grated summer squash, well-squeezed (1 medium squash)
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 Tblsp. olive oil
  • ½ c. + 2 Tblsp. sugar
  • ¼ c. plain, full-fat yogurt
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • (optional: handful of lemon basil leaves, chiffonaded)

    Dry Mix:

  • ¾ c. all-purpose flour
  • ½ c. whole wheat flour
  • ¼ c. walnuts, toasted and ground
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. baking soda
Begin by preheating oven to 350° and setting the walnuts to toast for 8-10 minutes (this is also the temperature at which the bread will bake). In the interest of efficiency, they can even be toasted in the loaf pan you'll use for the bread later.

Before squeezing
After squeezing

Grate the squash and sprinkle with ¼ tsp salt. This will help draw out the liquid, enabling you to pack in more squash. The 1½ cups of squash is measured after squeezing. Zucchini are something like 95% water, so you can squeeze out a lot and still have a moist result. I usually end up with about two-thirds the volume I start with. Add in the rest of the wet ingredients (you can even zest the lemon right into the bowl) and mix until well blended. If you're looking to cut back on fat in this recipe, you could probably use low- or non-fat yogurt, but swapping out the olive oil means you miss out its lovely, delicate flavor in the bread.

Grind the nuts or chop them very finely and mix up the dry ingredients in a second bowl. Add the Dry Mix to the Wet Mix and stir together gently until just mixed. Pour into greased and floured loaf pan and bake 45-50 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

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