Best Ever Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Chocolate Zucchini Cake | ZoeBakes photo by Zoë François

This Best Ever Chocolate Zucchini Cake post is from 2011, but the sentiment still stands, so I am not updating it. (8/19/18)

For the first time I understand why zucchinis are the butt of gardeners’ jokes. When I left town for my brother’s wedding in July, the zucchini plants were a spindly, weak vine with dozens of tender blossoms.  Two weeks later I returned home to find it had turned into a savage beast that took over precious real estate in the garden. My neighbor had kindly taken care of my urban farm while I was away and now my kitchen counter was also filled with zucchinis. The excitement of seeing the fruits of my labor laying there ripe and ready to eat, quickly turned to shock and concern.  I have never seen a vegetable, organic mind you, which grew to this size. It was larger than my children at birth; actually neither of the boys was this big until they were walking.  I opened the refrigerator and she had stuffed more in there. I panicked and did what every zucchini grower does; I tried to give them away. My neighbor explained that she had already taken all that she wanted for herself and I was not welcome near her home with even a single baby squash.

That is when I realized I had to disguise the vegetable and get rid of it in the form of tasty baked goods. This chocolate zucchini cake was inspired by one I ate while in college in Burlington, Vermont. I worked as a photo assistant, after classes at UVM and before my shifts at Ben & Jerry’s. One day we were shooting a spread for a magazine about using up the plethora of zucchinis from your garden. (The foreshadowing is not lost on me today.) A chocolate cake sat on pedestal and became the centerpiece of the shot. After our work was done we ate the spread of food and that cake blew my mind.  Not in a million years would you guess there was zucchini in it, and the result was moist, sweet, but not overly so, and intensely chocolate. I was a starving student and the generous baker wrapped the rest of the cake for me to take back to my dorm, along with the recipe. During one of my several moves that recipe was lost and this is the closest I have come to recreating it from distant memories.

You can watch me make and decorate this cake in my instagram video. Recipe below.

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Outrageous Brownies

30 years ago my dear friend, Sally, gave me a copy of Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. At the moment neither of us realized how significant that gift would be in my life. It was way before Instagram and the endless blogs filled with impossibly gorgeous recipes. Who am I kidding, it was before the internet. I had that one cookbook and a shitty student apartment kitchen to bake in. I made almost every recipe in the book and as a result learned how to make everything from cookies, cakes, pudding and even candy, but these outrageous brownies were the best thing in the whole book. I would splurge on really good chocolate, which meant something beyond Hershey’s. God only knows what brand it was back then, but I remember spending my entire food budget on chocolate, nuts and butter just to make them. I must have survived on rice cakes and peanut butter for the rest of the week.

30 years later these outrageous brownies are the only recipe I make. I’m pretty good about not eating a bowl of cake batter or cookie dough, but these brownies are a different story. I’m powerless to their seduction, so I can’t make them often. See my instagram video on making the brownies and recipe below. (more…)

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Tuscan Ricotta Tart with Peaches

Tuscan Ricotta Tart with Peaches. I’ve met so many incredibly talented and lovely people through Instagram. That’s where I first found Giulia Scarpaleggia (and her website Jul’s Kitchen), who lives and cooks in Tuscany. Her food is gorgeous and when she told me she had a cookbook coming out, I couldn’t wait to see it. The book is a beautiful guide to the Markets of Tuscany and the recipes they inspire, including this fresh ricotta tart (I added the peaches for a summer twist). The flavors are a classic combination from this region. I adore the food, the people, the terrain, the wine and the sweets of Tuscany. I’ve often fantasized about moving abroad and the Italian countryside is always first on the list.

This ricotta tart, caught my eye when I was flipping through the pages of Giulia’s book. Her tart, which she calls, Torta Squisita “exquisite cake”, is made with ricotta (I made it from scratch, which is so easy), chocolate, candied orange peel and a star anise flavored liqueur. It is quintessentially Italian. I happen to have some juicy, perfectly ripe peaches sitting on the counter, so I decided to top the tart with them. It is super tasty and an ode to summer, but it would be just as good without the peaches, served with a strong cup of coffee.

I made homemade ricotta for this tart and you can watch me make the super simple cheese and the whole tart in my instagram videos.

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Chocolate Birthday Cake

Chocolate Birthday Cake | Photo by Zoë François

When the Sunday New York Times Magazine opened to Dorie Greenspan’s chocolate cake, I said out loud, “I guess I know what I’m baking next!” To say I am a fan of Dorie’s is such a gross understatement. I am generally not one to worship celebrities, but Dorie is an exception. I have been a fan of hers since she wrote the Baking with Julia book with Julia Child. That book came out around the same time I had gone off to the CIA and it was the first book I baked my way through. Well, I’d gotten pretty far through Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts several years earlier, but with mixed results. Dorie was writing books with other chefs at the time and I came across her again in a lecture hall at the CIA, when Pierre Hermes was there doing a demo from his pastry book, Desserts by Pierre Herme, also written by Dorie. She may not have been in the front of house, to use a restaurant metaphor, but I noticed that she was writing all the books I wanted to read. Later she stepped into the spotlight with her own books and, well, I need not explain what an impact she has had on the baking community ever since.

The article that accompanied her chocolate cake was about baking it for her son’s birthday. My son’s birthday is also in May and we were just about to celebrate it belatedly, so it just felt like a no brainer. You can watch me bake Dorie’s Chocolate Birthday Cake in my Instagram videos and below is the link to the recipe. I added a layer of dulce de leche cream to my cake, since I had some laying about and it seemed a nice pairing with the chocolate cake. (more…)

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Coffee No-Churn Ice Cream Sandwiches

Coffee No-Churn Ice Cream Sandwiches | Photo by Zoë François

We went from 16″ of snow to 80 degrees in two weeks. My mind spun into summer mode in about 10 seconds flat. We Minnesotans can’t adjust to the warm slowly or we may miss it. So, in my mind it’s summer and that means ice cream season. My friend, Sarah Kieffer, from the Vanilla Bean Blog and the fabulous The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, has been talking about no-churn ice cream for years. She’s one of my favorites (baker, blogger, book creator, photographer and human) and yet, I wasn’t listening when she said it was SO easy and delicious. Ugh, sometimes I’m just too wedded to the traditional ways. Well, I’m here to tell you that I should have paid attention earlier, but at least I am on board now. I won’t give up my ice cream maker, just because it’s super fun, but Sarah’s no-churn ice cream will play a major roll in this summer’s desserts.

I also made her deep, dark, chocolate sugar cookies to sandwich the coffee ice cream between, which made for the perfect ice cream sandwiches. The cookies are incredible all on their own, but with the intense coffee flavor of the ice cream they are sophisticated, a touch edgy and a perfect grown-up dessert that kids will love too, but make it with decaf! The cookies have enough body to hold up to the ice cream, but they don’t turn to stone when they are frozen, so they are perfect for this marriage.

You can watch me make no-churn coffee ice cream and the cookies in my instagram videos.

Coffee No-Churn Ice Cream Sandwiches | Photo by Zoë François (more…)

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Cajeta Cake with Cinnamon Buttercream

cajeta cake (10 of 3)

This week I finished the second round of edits on my new book. That’s about halfway through the process, but it still felt like a reason to celebrate. I like to celebrate, even the small stuff. Why wait? Celebrate along the way, since the process is the whole reason I do this. Cake seemed the right way to mark the moment. A slightly-over-the-top cajeta cake at that. Piping icing into flowers is a zen moment for me, it’s how I relax and the results are so satisfying.

The inside of this cajeta cake is a collection of things I had stocked up in my freezer, because I always feel a little more secure knowing there is a cake just a thaw away. I typically bake extra cake layers and make more buttercream than I need for a single cake, then I freeze them. This may be a result of years in the catering world, when a rush order would come in and we’d have to create something in minutes, not hours. Cake and buttercream freeze like a dream.

cajeta cake slice (9 of 2)

The cake is chocolate, the buttercream I flavored with cinnamon and for the filling I made cajeta flavored mascarpone cream. Cajeta is often called “Mexican Caramel,” even though it’s not really caramel at all, but a reduction of goat milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and baking soda. You cook it low and slow for a couple of hours until it is both the color and consistency of caramel. The baking soda (an alkaline) reacts with the milk (slightly acidic) and it quickly darkens. Without the addition of baking soda the milk/sugar would have to actually caramelize (burn) to darken and that’s not what we want. You can watch me make the cajeta cake in my instagram stories.

Cajeta has an earthy flavor that I love, but it definitely tastes of goat milk. It is related to the dulce de leche and is made in the exact same way, so you can swap out the cajeta for the cow milk version if you’re not a fan of goat milk. Or, you can combine the two types of milk to mellow out the flavor a bit. You decide.

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