“Cake is a vegetable” sounds like only the most wishful of thinking, doesn’t it? But wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? I’m one hundred percent on board with team vegetable, but getting all your servings in can sometimes feel like a chore. It seems doubly hard when you’re gluten-free, since the “pizza is a vegetable!” card is no longer an option.
My mother originally pulled this recipe from The Zucchini Cookbook, a beautiful volume with recipes for zucchini at every meal. I understand that most people don’t like zucchini that much, but if you have any experience with gardening, you know that the plant simply gives you no other option. We were always popular when the squash started maturing in July, but by August it seemed the neighbors would shut their blinds and pretend to be out when they saw us heading over with an armload.
Naturally, in a house full of avowed chocoholics and dessert fiends, the zucchini harvest meant it was time to start baking. Of course, we made zucchini bread. Who doesn’t like zucchini bread? But it just isn’t, you know…chocolate.
Enter the zucchini chocolate cake. After lifting up a leaf and discovering a monster squash, most people would have the sense to pitch it in the compost. Not us. Those whoppers’ pale, watery texture turns out to be exactly what this recipe needs. Unlike most zucchini cakes or breads, you finely dice the zucchini rather than grating it, which prevents the cake from being damp or heavy. The tiny cubes of squash dissolve quietly into the crumb during baking, yielding an incredibly moist and snackable cake that hardly needs frosting.
But just because it didn’t need frosting doesn’t mean we aren’t going to top it off with chocolate cream cheese icing. My mother always makes a scalloped pattern on the top with a butter knife, and it’s hard to imagine the cake any other way. Family recipes have a way of becoming sacrosanct, down to the pan you bake in and the direction you swirl the icing.
Last weekend, though, there was some partying to be done. Two parties, really. A co-worker departed for a new position on Friday, and a Sunday supper morphed into a birthday party for a friend. Clearly, if I was to bake something, it had to be a crowd pleaser. And since it had to be done times two, it had to be fairly straightforward. Even though I couldn’t get that perfect zucchini from Mom’s garden, I knew immediately that this cake would be the one.
Cake number one was a three-layer specimen frosted with the usual chocolate cream cheese icing. Thumbs up from the faculty, and reports of cake being stuffed in pockets and eaten with fingers after the vultures descended on the remains in the student lounge.
The morning before the birthday party and cake number two, J and a friend essentially invited the entire church to our house. I tried not to have a panic attack at the thought of so many people (and eek…children!) in my house. Six o’clock rolled around and it seemed as though the doorbell would never stop ringing. By my count, we had twenty-eight people and two cats in our one-bedroom apartment. People rearranged the furniture, sat on the floor, and miraculously brought enough food. It was community at its finest: we didn’t necessarily share interests, age groups, occupations, or even know one another, but one person’s birthday was enough to unite us for an evening.
That, and this cake.
Between the whirlwind of kids chasing cats, dance move demonstrations, and taking out the trash for the umpteenth time, this cake neatly tied up a borderline chaotic night. We lit the candles, sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and settled into the contented ease that only birthday cake can bring. Knowing that we were “getting our vegetables” made it all the more sweet.
- 115g (4 ounces or 1 stick or 1/2 cup) butter, softened
- 100g (3.5 ounces or 1/2 cup) vegetable oil
- 350g (12.25 ounces or 1-3/4 cups) sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 140g (5 ounces or 2/3 cup) milk, mixed with 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 45g (1.5 ounces or 2/3 cup) cocoa powder, sifted
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 130g (4.5 ounces or 1 cup) buckwheat flour
- 100g (3.5 ounces or 3/4 cup) brown rice flour
- 90g (3.25 ounces or 3/4 cup) tapioca starch
- 250g (8.75 ounces or 2 cups) peeled and finely diced zucchini (scoop out seeds if they're mature)
- 115g (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) cream cheese (reduced fat is fine)
- 115g (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 25g (0.75 ounce or 1/3 cup) cocoa powder, sifted
- 250g (8.75 ounces or 2-1/2 cups) powdered sugar, sifted
- water, as needed
- 60g (2 ounces or 1/4 cup) butter, softened
- 115g (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) cream cheese
- 115g (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) creamy peanut butter
- pinch of salt
- 150g (5.25 ounces or 1-1/2 cups) powdered sugar, sifted
- water, as needed
- Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 9" x 13" baking dish, or put parchment circles in the bottoms of two 9" round pans and oil the sides. Set aside.
- Cream butter, oil, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add eggs, vanilla, and cocoa and beat to combine.
- In a small bowl, whisk together flours and remaining dry ingredients. Beat into butter and sugar alternately with soured milk, scraping down sides often. Add zucchini and mix briefly to incorporate into batter.
- Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Meanwhile, make your icing(s). Beat cream cheese and butter with whisk attachment. Beat in cocoa and vanilla for chocolate, or peanut butter and salt for peanut butter. Add powdered sugar and beat until combined, adding a few teaspoons of water until it comes together and achieves a spreadable consistency.
- Remove cakes from oven and allow to cool completely before attempting to frost them.
- Each of these icing recipes makes enough to frost one cake. If you want a two-tone cake like the one pictured, halve each recipe.