Saturday, June 25, 2016

Julie's Zucchini Bread

The 70's health food craze that's turned into a difficult sell in my house!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite picture books was In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, because apparently I've always been obsessed with food. In it, a boy named Mickey winds up in the "Night Kitchen" and is almost baked into a cake by three bakers. He then constructs an airplane out of bread dough and flies off to retrieve milk for the baker's cake. After his successful return, he winds up back in bed again. It's a silly story - although there are apparently much darker themes in it than I realized when I was a kid - and I remember being so outraged that apparently in this universe, cake was an appropriate thing to eat for breakfast. I'd never heard of such a thing and was pretty resentful that I was apparently being denied this totally appropriate sweet start to the day.

Fittingly, it was first published in 1970, and the recipe I'm featuring today is also a 70's classic. It's also a cake that people ate and presumably still eat for breakfast, and was once considered a health food! Obviously I was just born in the wrong decade if things like zucchini, banana and carrot bread were being promoted as a healthy start to your day.

These days, I feel like zucchini bread has become tough to market to people, while banana and carrot cake still appear at bakeries and on family tables all over the world. I know I've definitely turned my nose up at it in the past! So how did this bread come to be such a well loved staple, and how has it fallen out of favor? Let's find out!

Zucchini bread has World War II to thank for its existence. (As do plot elements of In the Night Kitchen, apparently...) We all know that during the war, families and even businesses were encouraged to grow their own crops in Victory Gardens to help the war effort. We all remember Molly talking about this in her books, and many of us probably have relatives who had one. Although many people stopped producing their own veggies once the war was over, some didn't, and a popular vegetable in their gardens was zucchini.

Zucchini is definitely one of those plants that can swamp a family with its production in a single growing season. I had a friend in high school whose parents had a zucchini plant, and they were always looking for people to adopt zucchinis they just flat out didn't have room for. Fortunately, when faced with an abundance of food, people tend to be pretty creative and often invent pretty groovy ways to put leftovers to use.

Evidently, someone had the realization in the 60's that zucchini would be a good addition to cake. There's no one person you can point to as the inventor of zucchini bread, probably because so many people were in a similar quandary of having too much of a good thing and because we already had a history of adding fruit and vegetables to cake for flavor and keeping the cakes moist thanks to carrot cake and banana bread. Zucchini seems like a pretty logical step because it's such a bland vegetable. To paraphrase Duff Goldman on this year's Spring Baking Championship, zucchini tastes like nothing. Literally all it does to your cake is give it some extra moistness without forcing you to rely on butter or shortening, which is good if you're trying to make a healthy cake.

One of the reasons it was so popular in the 70's is because at the time, everyone thought the primary ingredients of oil, brown sugar and zucchini were good for you, if not quite superfoods the way we think of blueberries or whatever else today. This helped get the dish out of the homes of people who were still growing their own vegetables and onto the tables of people who bought their produce from the grocery store, making it a staple of 70's baking. The recipe I made comes from Julie's Cooking Studio, which says that people legitimately viewed this as both a good breakfast and a healthy after school snack.

I decided to break out this recipe now because zucchini's in season in June, so I figured it was a good time of year to give it a try, even if I don't have my own garden to harvest with too much zucchini in it!

To start, you take three eggs, two cups of packed light brown sugar, one cup of vegetable oil and two teaspoons of vanilla and mix them together in a bowl with an electric mixer.

In a separate bowl, you combine two cups of flour, a teaspoon each of of salt, baking soda and baking powder, and two teaspoons of cinnamon. You then add half the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, combine them, and add the remaining flour and mix that in too.

Now for the main event: your zucchini. The recipe calls for two cups of shredded zucchini, and says you'll probably need two or three medium zucchinis to get that amount. It also says you can peel your zucchini or leave the skins on, but if you leave the skin on, your cake will be green!

A combination of laziness and curiosity meant I kept the skin on, because something told me this wasn't going to be as green as say, my Watergate cake. And if I was, I'd be surprised enough to make it worth it!

This gets dumped into the batter along with a cup of chopped walnuts. You can leave the walnuts out if you're allergic or don't like them.

See how not green the batter is? Chill, AG.

The recipe makes a lot of batter, so you should have two greased loaf pans ready to go to bake these. The loaves bake in the oven for an hour at 325, and mine - for once! - were ready to go in an hour instead of an hour and ten, or hour and fifteen. Good work, oven!

They cool in the pan for ten minutes, and then you can try wiggling them out to get them on a wire rack to finish cooling down. My little loaf came out with no problems, but the big one had some tearing issues.

The loaves are very delicate and soft, as you can see by the way it's decided to conform to the slight dip of my groovy yellow plate. I'd caution that it's definitely probable you'll have some tearing when getting them out of the pan even with a lot of grease.

So, putting it out there, this is not the start of a balanced breakfast. Sure, the zucchini and walnuts are good for you, but I kind of feel like all the sugar kind of cancels it out. I've always been told eating too much sugar early in the day actually freaks your body out and throws you off balance for the rest of the day, so my breakfasts tend to be a lot more Spartan, even if I desperately want to believe that eating cake is the right way to do breakfast.

That being said, this recipe makes a really tasty zucchini bread. I'm not sure I've ever actually eaten zucchini bread before because I tend not to like zucchini unless it's prepared at a hibachi restaurant, but based off of my knowledge of cakes and baked goods, I'm pretty confident that this is a good one. As we've seen, the cake is super moist and delicate, and has a really nice sweet and slightly spicy flavor. Although the cinnamon does kind of make it seem a little more fall or winter than summer, zucchini is a summer vegetable, so it fits the season better than you might think. Also, who said cinnamon can only be used in winter treats? Definitely not me.

An extra fun fact about zucchini bread is that it can keep for three months if you freeze it! This recipe definitely makes enough that you'll want to consider it if you don't wind up gifting your other loaf to a friend or family members. For a 70's recipe, this is a pretty enthusiastically waste not, want not sort of product!

I'm not entirely certain why this dish has faded from the public consciousness, but I'm going to make my best guess right here: when more people stopped growing their own vegetables and people realized putting zucchini in a cake doesn't change the fact that it's a cake, the treat fell out of fashion. Banana bread and carrot cake probably owe their continued existence to their names, because most people don't bat an eyelash at a sweet, generally popular fruit or vegetable being put in a cake. But zucchini? Why are you putting a bland squash you usually only see as part of savory side dishes in a cake? That sounds nasty!

It's really not! But it's definitely not a health food. I'm not sure the zucchini bread is ever going to retain its former position of glory as one of America's favorite baked goods, but it definitely doesn't deserve to be discarded entirely. Give the recipe from Julie's Cooking Studio a try yourself and see what you think! Maybe you'll discover why people wanted to believe this was good for you just so they could get away with eating it all the time.

And I guess it's still a way to trick people into eating zucchini...


  1. I like how leaving the skin gives you those little grin highlights in the bread - it's so much more visually interesting that way.

    Ten years ago I had an avid gardener neighbour who used to bring me her excess zucchinis. In exchange I'd usually bake something with them and send them back to her. I experimented with a lot of different recipes, but I don't think I ever skipping peeling them - now I'm regretting that I didn't!

    1. Agreed! I don't know why they caution you against it, it's not like we don't eat green things, haha.

      That's a great arrangement, though. I wish I lived near a gardener.

  2. *From Julie's doll mom:*

    I love zucchini bread! (as well as banana bread and carrot bread). And even though I'm a 70s kid, I didn't know about zucchini bread until the 80s, 'cos in the 70s, I grew up in NYC. No one I knew was growing zucchinis in their flower box gardens! But my favorite way to eat this is warm w/ butter on it. To me, this is like eating a flat muffin, which are acceptable for breakfast. (and BTW...I also got to eat cake for breakfast the day after my birthday!)

    1. Lucky!! That sounds like a super fun tradition. :D

  3. I love a good zucchini bread. Did your tasters enjoy? My favorite is the chocolate zucchini cake from Epicurious ( It is definitely not a healthy breakfast choice!

    1. They did! I think most of them were surprised by how yummy it was. And mmmm, that one looks delicious! I might have to give it a try sometime, I love unusual chocolate cake recipes.

  4. I can't hear zucchini bread without thinking of my Nana. This was definitely something she made during my childhood in the 70's. My grandparents had a garden that Uncle Dave said could feed a third world nation. They produced tons of zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. Our neighbors mostly loved getting the bounty from our garden, but sometimes the zucchini was overwhelming. So Nana was quick to give the zucchini bread craze a whirl. It was another tasty way to have the green wonder. And yes, we all felt so virtuous eating it. Weren't we the pictures of health?

    1. Too bad we don't have her recipe to compare this to! And hey, even if it wasn't super healthy, I bet it tasted just as amazing as the rest of the stuff she cooked. :D