When it comes to eating healthier, getting started is the hardest part. I’ve had fun making rich and decadent foods for me and my husband, especially since I started Comfort du Jour. But I’m on a roll with healthy swaps in the kitchen lately, and we are certainly not suffering for it; I dare say we may be enjoying our foods more than ever, and some of that is because we are giving up guilt, but not flavor. It helps a great deal that my commitment to lightening things up is timed exactly to the start of garden season and especially to the arrival of so much fresh zucchini.
I will admit that I have been surprised by the prolific yield of our zucchini plants, given that one of the four we planted was crushed when (apparently) a startled deer fell on the trellis. The plant was tied to grow up through the trellis and there was no way to release it from that mishap without pulling up all four plants. I figured that one was a goner, but nature always amazes me with its resiliency, and I am pleased to report that after a rough start, the crushed plant has rebounded and is still producing blooms. We have literally picked squash each day for the past week, and I’m scrambling to come up with fun ways to use them all.
I have loved zucchini bread since I was a kid, and I set out to modify an old family recipe to reduce the oil and sugar without sacrificing flavor or texture. The original recipe was handed down from my maternal great-grandmother, and it has always been delicious as written, but includes some things I don’t use in my own kitchen today, like “vegetable oil.” I had a few ideas in mind, such as subbing in Greek yogurt for a portion of the oil, and melted butter for the rest—the way I see it, if a recipe must have fats, they should at least contribute richness and flavor—and I reduced the overall amount of sugar by a fourth, using a combination of cane sugar and brown sugar (the latter keeps the zucchini bread nice and soft). As always, I also substituted whole wheat pastry flour for half of the total amount, because white flour is just empty carbs.
There was one more special switch-up in my modern version of my Great-Gram’s zucchini bread; I had this idea to embellish the bread with rum-soaked raisins for a fun twist. But would that have been OK with Grandma? As a young adult, I had the great fortune to know my great-grandmother, but I had no recollection of her ever taking a drink, so I paused over these rum-drenched raisins. On this twist, I consulted my aunt, who also likes to make healthy changes to time-honored dishes, but still respects the family heirloom recipes, as I do.
“I think she would be delighted,” was Aunt Joy’s reply, as other family members had recently confirmed to her that Grandma did enjoy a little nip on occasion. I have no doubt that she would have accepted my other changes, and I could even imagine exactly what she’d say, in her sassy, Norwegian accent:
“Sure, just use whatever you’ve got. You’ll know what to do.”
The only thing Grandma might have fussed about was just how long I had been soaking these raisins in rum, which I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit has been since, ahem, Christmas or so. I had doused them in Jamaican rum in an effort to revive them (they were desperately dry), and I intended to use them in a holiday treat but got distracted. Then I figured I’d put them in banana bread, but I kept either forgetting or changing my plan. We have moved these raisins around in the fridge for months, and by the time the zucchini started coming in, they weren’t just tipsy, they were plain drunk!
Obviously, not everyone has a bowlful of drunken raisins hanging around, and that’s perfectly fine. Soaking for a few hours or a couple of days will get the job done, and as the rum (or bourbon or orange juice or whatever you use) absorbs into the dried fruit, the natural sugars seep out into the liquid, forming a syrup of sorts. That sweetness adds the special something to this zucchini bread, and you honestly don’t taste any alcohol. It’s more about making them super plump before baking, as you can see in these juicy jewels of sweetness, nestled in among the toasted walnuts and all those shreds of fresh zucchini.
To get this recipe started, I first wrote down all the substitutions I planned to make, and I also cut my Great-Gram’s recipe in half, because her instructions were for two loaves. I find it challenging to change a recipe on the fly, and I probably should have mentioned that when I wrote about “the problem with recipes,” given that it is a frequent challenge for me. We have a small household—just me and my husband—and unless I am cooking to entertain, I like to make things in small amounts. I wrote out the exact amounts of all the ingredients I’d be using for a single loaf, and arranged them on the counter. At our house, we call it mise en place, the French term that means, “all in its place, lined up, ready to go.”
The eggs were whipped first, and I started with a hand whisk but quickly switched to my electric mixer with the single whisk head attachment. Despite my excitement in outfitting my kitchen with new, upgraded small appliances, I have thus far refused to replace my handheld mixer that I have had since the late 90s. There isn’t anything special about it, except that it was made in the USA and still works great after all these years. My Great-Gram probably had one just like it, and she would heartily agree that “they don’t make things like they used to.” After the eggs are whipped and foamy, I added the sugar, a little at a time. Then the yogurt and melted butter. The original recipe didn’t call for the vanilla yet, but I find it easier to mix that into a batter with the wet ingredients, so in it went.
The dry ingredients got whisked together in their bowl—this is important, because you don’t want the baking soda or cinnamon to clump up when they hit the wet ingredients—and they were added to the egg mixture a little at a time, alternated with the shredded zucchini. Blending and folding a little of each in stages ensures more even mixing without overworking the batter (which would make the bread tough).
Finally, the drunken raisins and toasted walnuts were folded into the batter, and my modernized, somewhat health-ified version of zucchini bread was ready for the oven!
Grandma’s recipe said to grease and flour the pan, but I made a hammock of parchment paper instead, for easy lifting of the finished loaf. I’ve never liked inverting a soft loaf of quick bread; it’s too easy to break it and I don’t care for the unsightly rack marks it leaves on top. No oil or greasing is necessary here—just lay the parchment into the pan with a bit of a flap hanging over each long side, and then pour in the batter. For a nice crunch on top of the loaf, I sprinkled on a tablespoon of turbinado sugar just before baking.
The house smelled sooo good while this was baking, and 55 minutes later, a clean toothpick confirmed it was done. There’s no doubt, this quick bread would be a winner with my great grandmother. It’s packed with plenty of garden-fresh zucchini, and with reduced fat and sugar—plus the substitution of whole grains—I can enjoy it for breakfast or dessert without guilt.
Healthy-ish Zucchini Bread with Drunken Raisins
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar; I did halvsies of white and brown sugar
- 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt (stir it well before measuring)
- 4 Tbsp. melted butter
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 3/4 tsp. baking soda
- 3/8 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- a few scrapes freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 cup grated zucchini (unpeeled, large holes on a box grater)
- ½ cup raisins (soak them at least a few hours, with just enough rum to cover them)
- ½ cup chopped walnuts, optional (I toasted them in the oven 8 minutes first)
- ½ tsp. vanilla
- 1 Tbsp. turbinado sugar (for sprinkling over the surface of the batter before baking)
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Toast walnuts if using, and allow them to cool while you prep the batter.
- Whisk together flours, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices.
- Use a handheld mixer to beat the eggs until they are light-colored and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, blending to dissolve and fully incorporate it. Blend in yogurt and then butter.
- Using a silicone spatula, fold 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the egg mixture, alternating with 1/2 grated zucchini and repeat, ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in raisins and walnuts.
- Pour batter into non-stick (or greased, floured) bread pan. I laid in a sling of parchment, so I could lift the baked bread out rather than inverting it. Sprinkle the surface evenly with turbinado sugar.
- Bake in lower third of oven for 55 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool at least 20 minutes in pan, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
This zucchini bread is delicious when served warm. Wrap leftovers snugly in aluminum foil at room temperature or refrigerate for longer storage.