Late summer in Michigan means gardens overflowing with zucchini. My grandparents and my dad, who live next door to each other yet have separate vegetable gardens, spend August giving away what seems like an endless supply of zucchini – to their friends, neighbors, anyone who happens to stop by (you might think they’d have learned to plant less over the years, but no). Anyway, this is how I generally end up with a freezer full of shredded zucchini.
I like zucchini. It is excellent steamed, stir-fried, grilled on kabobs. I have a recipe for Stewed Summer Squash (a kind of tomato-and-zucchini stew that is warm and soupy and slurpable) that was my great-grandmother’s. But zucchini is also unique in that it masquerades really well as a sweet (much the way grated carrot does) cooked into things like my mother’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake and the inevitable zucchini bread.
Everyone has a recipe for zucchini bread. My version is the result of a simple discovery: everything is better with buttermilk. It’s true. Pancakes, biscuits, any kind of sweet bread, even cookies – if you add buttermilk, you will get something that is moister, richer, softer. Granted, adding buttermilk means adjusting the dry ingredients and possibly increasing the baking time, which can be a process rife with trial and error. But if you are willing to invest, the likelihood is that the result will be worth it.
I started adding buttermilk to baked goods when I started using a mix of whole wheat and white flours in order to add fiber. Discovering that the whole wheat flour made things a little drier, I tried adding a half cup of buttermilk to the batter of whatever I was making. It worked like a charm.
My first attempt at zucchini bread was not so successful. I was in sixth grade, and my mother, who had recently gone back to work, had taken to leaving me a note every day with a chore or two of some kind to accomplish between the time when I arrived home from school and when she arrived home from work.
On this particular day, she left a stained index card on the kitchen counter, the recipe for zucchini bread inscribed on it in her pretty handwriting. I have no idea where my mother got her recipe for zucchini bread (she doesn’t remember), but it was one of my favorite late-summer treats. I looked forward to the days when she came in from the garden in the evening, arms filled with the glossy, dark green squash.
Unlike me, my mother didn’t grate zucchini and freeze it in order to have off-season zucchini bread, so it was a seasonal thing. We didn’t have a food processor, so she grated the zucchini by hand on a four-sided steel cheese grater. It wasn’t a ton of work, but it took about as long to grate one zucchini by hand as my food processor takes to grate 20.
That day, I was excited when I saw the recipe card and read the accompanying, rather cryptic note, which simply said, “Zucchini in fridge. Have fun! Love, Mom.” It was the first time she had left me a job that didn’t feel like a chore. I loved to bake, but had never attempted it when my mother wasn’t home. I jumped right in, standing on a chair in order to reach the baking shelf, digging out mixing bowls, loaf pans, and measuring cups, forgetting to preheat the oven until I was halfway done.
I remember thinking, as I grated the dark green squash by hand, that it was extremely juicy and seedy. But I dismissed this observation with a shrug, and kept on determinedly. An hour and a half later, I pulled two dark golden loaves of moist bread from the oven, and set them on the top of the stove to cool. They looked perfect, and the house filled with the sweet aromas of vanilla and cinnamon. I could feel myself swelling with pride.
My stepfather arrived home shortly afterward. He barely managed to enter the house before I was there, leaping around, explaining that I’d made zucchini bread, and wouldn’t he like a piece? I carefully cut a generous, still-warm slice, placed it on a plate, and slathered butter on top. I think I even poured him a glass of milk to go with it. I remember watching his face eagerly as he took the first bite.
I remember, too, that as he chewed, he looked up at me in surprise, hurriedly swallowed, and took a big gulp of milk, as though to wash down a bad taste.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Don’t you like it?” I could feel my chest getting tight.
“What did you put in it?” he asked. “Salt instead of sugar?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head, tears beginning to form in the corners of my eyes. I knew better than to mistakenly use salt in lieu of sugar. Besides, the salt was in the Morton’s container, and the sugar was stored in a canister on the counter. It was impossible to confuse them. What could have gone wrong? I’d followed the recipe so carefully, step by step.
“Well, something isn’t right with this zucchini bread,” my stepfather said, as he stood up and put the remainder of the piece I’d so proudly sliced and buttered into the trash. “It’s bitter. I can’t eat it.”
I ran to my room, where I curled up on my bed with a book, listening for the sound of my mother’s arrival. When I heard the garage door opening, I ran to the kitchen to greet her as she came through the door.
I explained anxiously about the zucchini bread, assuring her that I’d been careful to follow every step exactly, that I had no idea what could have gone wrong. She listened patiently, saying she was sure it was a simple mistake, and setting her purse on the table, went to the counter and cut a small piece. Tasting it, she made a face.
“Honey,” she said, “it is bitter. I wonder what you did.”
“Well,” I said, “the zucchini seemed a little weird – they were really juicy and had lots of seeds. But they didn’t seem rotten or anything.”
She wrinkled up her brow at this, obviously thinking. Going over to the refrigerator, she opened the door and peered inside, then turned to look at me over her shoulder.
“The zucchini is still in here,” she said.
“What?” I came to stand beside her and, sure enough, there they were, two fat, dark green squash, side by side on the middle shelf.
My mom reached down and opened the vegetable drawer, and began to laugh.
“Cucumbers,” she said. “Honey, you used cucumbers instead of zucchini…”
Note: cucumbers do NOT bake well. I have yet to live down the “Cucumber Bread” incident, although I think the recipe for zucchini bread, below, has to have some kind of redemptive power. Just be sure that you’re using zucchini.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan.
Grate enough zucchini to make 2 cups, squeezing any excess moisture from the squash with a paper towel. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together:
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon. ground cinnamon
In a large bowl, blend together:
3/4 cup sugar (I like to use raw cane sugar)
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, a cup at a time, until well-blended. Stir in the zucchini. You can also add 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Pour into the pan and bake, 60-75 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.