Mini Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

and tri-color candied citrus zest

The Fine Line Between Bread and Cake

Quiz!

1) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated carrot, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B) Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

2) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated zucchini, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

If you answered C or D, I admire your attempt to make sense of a senseless world, but you get no points from me. If you chose E, I like where your priorities are, but I think you’re still wrong. For most Americans most of the time, #1 is carrot cake and #2 is zucchini bread, regardless of the ingredient proportions or method. It’s true that cake has generally come to refer to sweeter baked goods and bread to less-sweet ones, but that doesn’t seem to matter in the case of these grated-vegetable cake/breads. If it did, the inclusion of chocolate chips would make probably push you in the “cake” direction, but there are dozens of chocolate chip zucchini “bread” recipes and others that make the whole loaf chocolate, but are still named “bread.” Both probably fall into the categories of “quick bread” or “snack cake” but there’s no fixed culinary meaning for either of those categories either.

Anyhow, I blame whatever historical contingency landed chemically-leavened grated-carrot-containing baked objects in the “cake” bin and chemically-leavened grated-zucchini-containing baked objects in the “bread” bin for my failure to realize until now that the latter could also achieve its apotheosis under a mantle of sweetened cream cheese. And maybe I was too quick to dismiss answer E, because as soon as I realized I could frost what I would normally call zucchini bread, I was suddenly inclined to call it “cake.” In further naming hijinks, without the frosting, I’m pretty sure these become “muffins.” Right?

many tasty little muffins

Not The Answer to Zucchini Excess

My garden was the victim of serious neglect this year, so I’m not facing the Great Zucchini Glut of a typical July-August. If I were, I’d probably be knee-deep in fritters and garlicky almond sautés and wouldn’t waste my time with recipes like this, which use a pretty pathetic amount of zucchini. 2 cups? Please. A moderately-neglected garden can produce that much in the average Olympics break between NBC commercial broadcasts. This is also why recipes for zucchini bread so often describe the squash flavor as “delicate.” That means you really can’t taste the squash at all, but that’s a probably a good thing unless you’re into baked goods that taste like bitter, watery mush.

The grated squash adds some moisture, a hint of green (or yellow, depending on the color of your squash), and maybe a vague nutritional halo to the cake part. The brown sugar and vanilla in the frosting give it a kind of caramelly flavor, much like taffy apple dip. The citrus zest on top is mostly for color, but also adds a little sweet and sour crunch. If any or all of those things sound appealing and you have a solitary medium-sized summer squash you don’t know what to do with (or one or two little ones), this could be the recipe for you.

the citrus zest defintely makes it prettier, but it's really all about the cream cheese frosting

Recipe: Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Taste of Home, Ian Young via Martha Stewart, and ThatsSoYummy)

Ingredients

Cupcakes:

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour I used these two which was probably a little more than 2 cups, beer bottle for scale
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 medium or 2 small zucchini, shredded (1 1/2 – 2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup oil or melted butter
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins (optional) candying zest--this was a triple batch with 2 oranges, 3 lemons, and 2 limes

Frosting:

  • 4 oz (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened  
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup light-brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Candied Citrus Zest

  • zest of 2-3 lemons, limes, and/or oranges
  • 1/3 cup water (plus much more for blanching zest)
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons more for sparkle

Method

Cupcakes:

1. Optional: if using currants or raisins, soak them in the orange juice (with a splash of booze, if you like) for a few hours or overnight.

currants submerged in the orange juice with a splash of cognac after 4-5 hours of soaking, all plumped up

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin tins or coat with cooking spray or butter.

3. Whisk together the flour, sugars, spices, salt, and baking powder.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, vanilla, shredded zucchini, and currants or raisins with the soaking liquid (if using). Add this mixture to the flour and stir just until combined.

4. Fill prepared muffin tins approximately 2/3 full.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes (18-22 minutes for standard muffin tins, 45-60 min in a standard loaf pan), until a tester comes out clean or the centers are at least 190F.

6. Let cool in pans 5-10 min, turn out of pans and continue cooling on racks for at least an hour before frosting.

Frosting:

1. Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment or a spatula and lots of energy, beat the softened cream cheese until it’s soft and airy (3-5 minutes).

2. Add the softened butter and beat until evenly combined.

3. Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. It may be a little gritty at first, just keep beating and the sugar will dissolve.

4. Optional: add powdered sugar if desired to increase sweetness or to make it stiffer for piping.

5. Pipe or spread onto cooled cupcakes. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

I just dipped the cupcakes in the frosting and swirled them around a little--much faster than piping. The extra makes a great dip for strawberries or apple slices.frosted but not yet zested

Candied Zest:

1. Peel fruits, minimizing white pith. Cut into shapes or strips as desired

this keeps well for a long time, so I made a big batch with 2 oranges, 3 small lemons, 2 limes; some people try to get all the white pith off, but I think blanching takes care of the bitterness cut into little strips, which is a little painstaking. could also use a zester that takes strips automatically to make it faster

2. Put peel in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 7-10 minutes and drain. Taste and repeat if desired. More blanching = less bitterness, but also less flavor.

3. Return the blanched peel to the pot and add sugar and water in saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peel is translucent, 10-15 minutes. Remove peel pieces and separate onto waxed paper to let cool.

4. Optional: after 20-30 minutes, sprinkle with additional sugar and toss to coat. Continue to let dry 8-12 hours.

you can leave the zest unsugared, and then it'll look sort of glossy I prefer it with a little sparkle

Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

not especially summery, but when you're living in AC all the time anyway, who cares? 

This is a new favorite. I improvised something like it a few weeks ago while staying at a stranger’s house with some friends. We were wandering around an unfamiliar supermarket trying to figure out how to make dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen, and someone grabbed some sweet potatoes because yams are a man’s crop. I decided they should become soup, and found some red lentils, coconut milk, smoked pork neck bones, and a cheap bottle of “Jerk Seasoning” (with cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, and chilis).

Back at the house, I simmered the smoked pork neck bones in water to start breaking them down while I prepped the “duh, soup” ingredients like onion and garlic. I also found a knob of ginger, so I minced that and threw it in, too. I added the lentils and sweet potatoes and Jerk Seasoning once the onions had started to caramelize and then added the pork bones with their broth and simmered it all until everything had melted into a thick stew and the meat was ready to fall off the bones. Coconut milk for creaminess, lemon for brightness, and a little salt. It turned out pretty tasty—smoky, sweet, spicy, and rich with the pork and coconut fat. We ate it with a super fast loaf of crusty no-knead bread (made with a full package of of rapid-rise yeast, 2 hour first rise, 30 min second rise, still damn tasty). It would be just as good with long-grain rice or flatbread or crackers or just all by itself.

after about 45 min of simmering, by the time you're ready to add it to the rest of the ingredients, the water should be cloudy and fat should be pooling on the surface chilis, turmeric, cloves, and cumin in the coffee grinder

It occurred to me later that it could have used a little cilantro, so I added some when I made it again at home, and I think that did improve it. In my own kitchen, I like to toast and grind the spices myself rather than using a prepared blend. You might not be able to taste the difference, but the smell of spices toasting in a pan is one of my favorite parts of cooking.

Variations

In this vegetarian version, I left out the sweet potatoes and used 8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, and mushroom bouillon in place of the pork bone broth. Still tasty. Like most soups, especially ones you make up on the fly, this recipe is very flexible. You could use another kind of lentil or dried peas, adjust the spices based on what you’ve got or use another kind of prepared blend, substitute cream or yogurt for the coconut milk (or skip that part entirely). If you want bigger, more distinct chunks of potato, leave them out until the last 30-40 minutes of cooking. If you keep kosher, you could substitute smoked turkey necks for the pork. Or leave the meat out entirely for a vegan version and use bouillon or vegetable broth instead, in which case you can reduce the cooking time to 1-2 hours or however long it takes for the lentils to be tender. To make up for the smokiness and umami you get from the bones, you can add some mushrooms, canned or fresh tomatoes, MSG, nutritional yeast, and/or liquid smoke.

Recipe: Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

lentils, onions, garlic, ginger--the base of so many tasty mealsIngredients:

  • 2 onions 
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic
  • 2” piece of ginger
  • 2-3 Tablespoons butter, lard, or oil
  • 1-2 lbs smoked meat/bones (like ham hocks or turkey necks) OR 1-2 Tablespoons bouillon/MSG/nutritional yeast/liquid smoke
  • 8-12 cups of water or stock
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice, or 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 lb red lentils (about 2 cups) or split peas
  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • spice blend below, or about 2 Tablespoons of curry powder or jerk seasoning or any other spice blend you like, preferably cumin-centric with a little heat
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus more to garnish (or parsley if you’re cilantro-averse)
  • yay for toasting spicessalt and black pepper to taste

Spice blend (adapted from Post Punk Kitchen)

  • 2 teaspoons whole coriander seed 
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon whole fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 4-6 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 dried red chili peppers (omit or remove the seeds if you don’t like heat)

1. If using smoked meat, put it in a large pot along with 8 cups of water and vinegar or wine and let simmer while you prep the other ingredients. The acid helps leach minerals from the bones.

2. Peel and dice the onions and mince the garlic and ginger. Heat your cooking fat of choice in another large pot for a couple of minutes and then add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until the onions are translucent and beginning to turn gold.

3. Meanwhile, peel and dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1” cubes. Add them to the onion mixture and toss to coat in the fat.

chunking up some sweet potatoes

4. If using the homemade spice blend, toast the coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, and cloves in a small pan for about 5 minutes or until fragrant and beginning to darken. Pulverize them along with the turmeric and chili peppers in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

5. Add the spice blend to the onions and potatoes and stir to coat well. Add the red lentils, and the smoked meat & the liquid they’re simmering in OR 8 cups of water or broth and the bouillon.

6. Simmer for at least two hours, stirring occasionally and adding more water if it gets too thick. About an hour before you want to eat, remove the bones/meat (if using) and let cool for 30 minutes. Pick the meat off the bones and add it back into the soup.

7. Add the coconut milk, lemon or lime juice, and cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust other seasonings as desired. Serve, garnished with more cilantro.

porky and veg versions working side by side, pork bones just transferred from the metal to black pot and about to be followed by the broth; the veg version in the blue pot in back had yellow split peas instead of red lentils, tomato instead of sweet potato, and mushroom bouillon + water instead of pork bone broth