If you, like me, were the recent recipient of an armload of blue-ribbon-at-the-county-fair-worthy summer squash, then most certainly you are, like me, currently thinking yourself spectacularly spoiled.

But then, if you're one of those industrious types that grows their own squash, then maybe you're looking for a way to use up the proliferous buggers.

In either case, if need be, I may have the means to the end of your zucchini supply, specifically by way of chocolate olive oil zucchini bread.

I had some difficulty with this bread, not in its making but in its naming, as while the sum of the parts is what we're all here for, each of those parts has an indespensible role to play.

I put the chocolate first, because one glance at this quick bread and there's no mistaking the presence of cocoa. Chopped semisweet chocolate mollifies the tobacco-darkness of that cocoa powder; the irregular shards melt into the bread so that here and there within the crumb are damp pockets of sweetness. 

The olive oil is the surprise, tasting resiny and somehow green. The one I used makes me think of lemons and fields of newly-mown hay, which feels right for something you're baking at summer's height. 

The zucchini is, of course the main event, and so gets the glory of the final fanfare. There's a full four cups of it in the recipe, divided between two loaves. The pale shreds weave through the batter, so the resulting breads are gratifyingly bulging with bumps and crags, shot through and through with specks of green. It's a bread that does not pretend to be anything other than what it is, and that's an (albeit tasty) conveyance for terrific quantities of summer squash. 

All that said, I could have mentioned the walnuts. They're toasted, so that their fatty waxiness is made snappy and their aromatic bitterness is amplified. Along with the olive oil you've got a winner of a combination, so much so that the nuts were this close to headline status. 

The buttermilk too, it could have been up there in lights, because this bread would be so much less without the spring in the crumb - the crumb has weight without being weighed down, and the buttermilk's to thank for that. It steers the bread away from residence in the land of cake and clears the way for having some for breakfast. 

Exceptional with coffee, this bread's not so much suited to a fork, but instead the sort you use your fingers to break chunks off a slice, to be eaten in between paragraphs as you read the paper. 

There's what's left of a loaf on the counter and it's my plan for tomorrow morning. If you'd like, I'll set an extra place.

CHOCOLATE OLIVE OIL ZUCCHINI BREAD

The method for this bread is the standard muffin or quick bread style; wet ingredients stirred briefly into the dry. No mixer required, with two bowls and a spoon and you're set.

Ingredients

  • Softened butter, for pans
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups fine-grained turbinado sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 cups shredded zucchini, see note

Method

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans with softened butter. Use a length of parchment to line the bottom and long sides of the pan, forming a sling, and lightly butter the parchment as well. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in the chopped walnuts and chocolate. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together the olive oil and buttermilk. Add the eggs, sugar and vanilla, and beat until smooth. Stir in the zucchini.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, stir until combined, taking care not over mix. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake, rotating once, until a cake tester inserted into the loaf comes out almost clean, which should be around 50 minutes. Cool loaves in their pans on a rack for 20 minutes, then grasp the edges of the parchment to ease the bread out.

If you can wait long enough to let them cool to room temperature before slicing, then well done. But if you can't wait, and cut the loaves into ragged pieces while still warm, then I can't say I blame you.

Makes 2 loaves.

Notes:

  • For the zucchini, I use the grating attachment on my food processor, taking care not to press down on the feed tube plunger while the machine is running - this gives a light, feathery shredding. Since we want a bread that is damp but not sodden, I sprinkle the emerald-tipped strands across a (lint-free) kitchen towel, then place another atop, patting it down gently. After a few minutes the towels will have absorbed some of the excess liquid and the zucchini is left crisp and ready to go.
  • If olive oil is not your thing, then it can be replaced by an equal amount of neutral oil or melted butter. With the latter, the bread will be denser and, as it lacks the mitigating edge of olive oil, it will taste sweeter as well.
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I had not intended this humble walnut cake to be a topic of discussion. It was the fulfillment of a request of something simple to end a mid-week lunch ten whole days ago. No bells or whistles or sugarplum fairies required. No ballyhoo to be had, nothing to talk about here.

And good gracious, it was yet another walnut recipe. And not only that, it also represents not one, but another two recipes from Gourmet magazine, the apparent alpha and omega of my kitchen exploits. I assumed that my fancy, and our conversation, would move on to other things.

Silly, silly me. Despite the days that have passed the charm of that uncomplicated cake is still peerless in my estimation.

The preparation was as simple as can be. It all came together in a food processor, where toasted walnuts are left with butter and sugar to whir on their own for a while. Once smooth, they become what I can only imagine akin to what peanut butter wants to be when it grows up - a smooth blend of butter and nuts, intensely flavoured and sharply aromatic. Next it's just eggs, flour, baking soda and salt, and it's done, off to the oven.

What emerges is a cake that's fairly thin and mostly flat, with the gentlest of swells at its middle. Medium brown with darker flecks throughout, it is resolute in its plainness and yet exceedingly appealing. For the sake of fuss I improvised a frosting of one part cream cheese to equal parts soft, unripened goats cheese and butter, with enough icing sugar to sweeten and a splash of vanilla to round out the flavour. But the gilding was hardly necessary; the cake itself was memorable, moist with a tender, springy crumb.

I offered an Apple-Fig Compote at its side, fruity and jammy and tart to counter the resonant nuttiness of the cake. The combination was gorgeous.

So gorgeous in fact, I'll probably still be talking about 10 days from now. Maybe more.

WALNUT CAKE WITH APPLE + FIG COMPOTE
 

Recipes

Walnut Cake (omit the topping)

Apple-Fig Compote (see note below)

Notes:

• For the compote, I omitted the lemon juice and zest, and used maple syrup in place of the sugar. I popped a 1x1/4-inch piece of peeled ginger into the pot while simmering the fruit, removing it before cooling.

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Today is Monday dressed up in Thursday's clothing. Of this, I am certain.

Unexpected company for the last two days led to Tuesday and Wednesday's schedules taking on the traits of Saturday and Sunday respectively, with a weekend-ish pace to boot. But that didn't mean we were exempt from the requirements of midweek days, so that was packed in too.

Today is back to its usual routine, behaving decidedly like the start of the week rather than the end.

But the calendar says it is Thursday, and the fourth Thursday of November at that, which makes it American Thanksgiving. But then, all the chatter about turkeys and pies and pumpkins conjures memories of the Canadian holiday of the same name, which we celebrated in October. On the second Monday of the month to be precise.

Here we are, back to Monday. On Thursday. I'm not sure if I should be coming or going, getting ready to face a new week or eager to bid goodbye one.

Thank goodness that on this Monday-ish Thursday there is still some kale around. Kale might not sound like a consolation, but when your mind is awhirl, a plate of kale is as good as a spot as any to choose to settle gently. In fact, I would say that on a rainy fall evening that nothing is more soothing than sitting someplace comfy, tucking your feet up, and scooping up your supper by the emerald forkful.

This kale is roughly torn, with some of the bitterness blanched out of its leaves before it slumps into a pile of soft onions and garlic. As it hits the heat, the resulting steam is savourily-aromatic, damp and dense with the vegetal essence of sturdy greens. After cooking the kale softens to supple leatheriness, its sinewy leaves still hale and hearty but more relaxed. Fleshy crowns of walnuts add autumnal bulk, and cranberries give both a tempered sweetness and an appreciated touch of acidity.

The final effect is one of Rudolph among the evergreens, complete with the white flecks of a light snowfall; and as this Thursday is the last before December, it might be perfect timing.

KALE WITH WALNUTS AND CRANBERRIES

A interpretation of recipes from Gourmet, available here and here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound kale, washed well, trimmed of tough ribs and torn into large pieces
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper

METHOD

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

Boil the kale until bright green and just tender, about 5 minutes. Immediately plunge the greens into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Once cooled, drain well but do not squeeze.

In the same pot over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occassionally, until the onion is fragrant and beginning to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Tumble in the walnuts, tossing to coat well with the butter/oil. Continue to cook until the nuts are golden and lightly toasted, around 2 minutes. Stir in the cranberries.

Using your hands or tongs, separate the kale as best as you can and add to the pot. Stir to combine, and continue to turn the leaves through the onion and walnut mixture until they are warmed through and softened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 4.

There is that saying about loving something enough to give it away, and if it comes back then it was meant to be.

I'm wondering if that applies to cakes, too. Specifically a Cinnamon Walnut Mud Cake.

I made this cake for a birthday celebration I was unable to attend. It was packed up with not even a crumb missing; an exercise in willpower and an act of true affection.

The next day a generous slice was brought back to me, with thanks, so that I could share in the festivities. I took this as a sign that not only was this cake meant to be mine, but it was also meant to be one I told you all about.

My friends, this cake deserves the chatter. As straightforward as they come in method, it is a melt-n-mix affair that was just right for a midweek birthday. Despite its brooding looks, the cake is has a surprising delicacy. A fudgy underside is layered with a cracked and crumbly, mousse-like top, with airy texture that immediately melts upon contact with the tongue. Bouncy for all of its darkness, like damp, rich soil that's made of chocolate and sugar instead of, well, dirt. Walnuts break up the crumb like supple pebbles.

I sent this cake out into the world with little expectation, and it returned as a gift for me. And while a selfish little voice my be murmuring somewhere in the corners of my mind, it is a gift I am happy to share.

Grab a fork and dive in.

The box in the photo was made by simplesong designs, and is one of Suann's wonderful letterpresssed creations. Her store is full of treasures like these pencils, and her blog is a perfectly-curated collection of things that have caught her fancy, as well as her own beautiful projects (be sure to check out the adorable invitations to her son's birthday and the dinner party she recently threw for charity - it's stunning). She's just fab.

And to all my Canadian friends, Happy Thanksgiving!

CINNAMON WALNUT MUD CAKE

Those who appreciate the depth of chocolate might want to substitute 4 ounces of bittersweet for the same quantity of semisweet here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 ounces (2 sticks, 1 cup) unsalted butter plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted and lightly salted while still warm
  • Cocoa powder, to serve

METHOD

Lightly butter a 10-inch springform pan then line the bottom with a disc of parchment paper. Use strips to line to line the sides, pressing the parchment into the butter to adhere.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C).

Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the 8 ounces of butter with the chocolate, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla. You do not need to blend them together terribly vigorously, just enough so that the sugar is dissolved. The mixture should barely lighten in colour and there will be a layer of bubbles at the surface but not throughout.

Pour the egg mixture into the chocolate, and stir to combine. Fold in the flour mixture, being careful not to overmix. Stir in the walnuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the centre is puffed and cracked. A cake tester inserted into one of these cracks should come out with wet, clumped crumbs; gooey but not liquid. The cake will continue to cook as it cools, losing its crown and falling back upon itself.

Remove the cake to a wire rack to come to room temperature. To serve, release the sides of the springform carefully and remove the parchment paper. Dust the top with cocoa powder pushed through a sieve.

Makes one 10-inch cake, serving 16.

Notes:

• If I am being honest, even though I have directed to sieve together the dry ingredients in the recipe, I may have simply dumped those dry ingredients onto the wet without adverse effect. Shh. Don't tell.

• This cake likes to be handled with care. For ease of serving, chill the fully-cooled cake for around 30 minutes before slicing and it will firm up. It can be stored at room temperature for a day or two, but I prefer to keep it covered in the fridge.

• A spoonful of sweetened sour cream makes an ideal accompaniment.

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I am stuck in a monochromatic palette; mounds of pristine snow and a bleached-out sky offer a pale landscape out my window. The much-appreciated sunshine is bright and clear, but with none of its summertime golden hue.

While still beautiful, late winter makes you work just that little bit harder to feel welcomed. Whether it be wardrobe choices (layers are key), weekend plans (more layers) or what to eat (layers of flavour), these last few months of the season seem to require more effort than those preceding.

Late fall brings excitement over the return of slow-cooked braises, the opportunity to fill the kitchen with heat and heady smells of herbs and spice. Winter follows with resplendent holiday celebrations, with tables groaning under grand feasts. But now, in the doldrums of early March, the mornings dawn gray and pale. The sun valiantly attempts to stay awake for dinner, but often fails.

It is amongst all these pallid hues that we must still attempt to eat our greens. Spring and summertime salads can be made seemingly without thought; all I need are some sparingly-dressed tender young lettuces, or some grilled asparagus or sugar-sweet tomatoes freshly plucked from the garden.

Late February and March are a bit more challenging. Hardy winter leaves are often rather unyielding in their assertiveness, and can require equally dominant accompaniments to temper their influence.

That is not to say that the effort is unrewarded; milk-coloured Belgian endive, paired with pungent Roquefort and pears is a wonderful balance of bitter, savoury and sweet. Juicy grapefruit segments are the classic counterpoint to aromatic slivers of shaved fennel. Or, as in here, the wild, barely-green curls of sharp frisée compliment salty Parmesan and a honeyed vinaigrette. The lively layers of texture and taste (almost) make one forget the winter lurking just outside the door.

Epilogue: I should mention that I started writing this post over the weekend, when we were blanketed under snow and dealing with temperatures in double-digit negative degrees Celsius. Mother Nature was evidently in a benevolent mood, as today the sky is positively robin's egg blue and we have been granted an absolutely balmy 15ºC. The snow has melted, and I even have some windows open.

Tomorrow is going to be -4ºC.

Salad of frisée, apples and Parmesan
My own simple creation. Candied nuts can be used instead of the roasted, and pear substituted for the apple. White balsamic vinegar, albeit untraditional, adds an interesting character to this vinaigrette. If unavailable, Champagne vinegar would be my recommended choice.

Ingredients
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
12 pecan or walnut halves, unsalted
1 small head frisée, washed and dried, root end removed and roughly torn
1 small apple, gala or cameo preferred, thinly sliced
A few shavings of Parmesan cheese, to garnish

For the vinaigrette; in a small bowl whisk together the mustard, honey and white balsamic until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette becomes emulsified and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast the nuts until fragrant. Remove from pan, set aside. In a bowl, toss together the frisée, apple and nuts. Pour over about half of the vinaigrette and toss gently. Check for seasoning.

Divide the salad between two serving plates, garnish with Parmesan shavings. Drizzle additional vinaigrette over the plates, reserving some to be served alongside if desired.

Serves 2.