We recently welcomed some new neighbours to our street. A casual lunch seemed like the easiest way for all to get to know one another, and so several of us put our heads together to decide what to cook.
My next-door neighbour said he would make a spread of prawn and vegetable curries and I was charged with making something for dessert.
I decided on a favourite of mine - zucchini cake - because it is not too sweet and goes great with coffee or tea.
Cakes based on vegetables are not a new idea - think carrot cake and pumpkin scones - but zucchini cake, although not a recent innovation, is still a rather under-recognised vegetable-based cake.
While there is no evidence to suggest that vegetable-based cakes are healthier than the regular variety, vegetables work brilliantly in cakes, loaves, scones and muffins, adding an extra level of flavour and texture.
I did a bit of research on some of the lesser-known ways of using vegetables in cakes. Some seemed interesting, but there were others I am not so certain would appeal to me.
350g zucchini (about three, medium size)
250ml vegetable oil (canola is a good choice)
250g brown sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
100g chopped walnuts
150g chopped pitted dates
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Grated fresh ginger
FOR CREAM CHEESE ICING
250g cream cheese
75g soft icing sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tsp grated lemon zest for decoration
1. Pre-heat the oven to about 170 deg C. Grease a 22cm cake baking pan with butter, then line the base with baking paper.
2. Wash the zucchinis and grate them into a bowl using the coarse side of the grater. There is no need to peel them first. Drain them if they are too wet.
3. Beat the oil, sugar and eggs together in a large bowl until the mixture is pale and creamy.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Stir and fold into the oil, sugar and egg mixture along with the walnuts, dates, bicarbonate of soda and grated fresh ginger until well combined.
5. Pour into the prepared baking tin and bake in the pre-heated oven for about one hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow the cake to stand in the baking tin for about 15 minutes, then transfer onto a baking rack and allow to cool.
TO MAKE THE CREAM CHEESE ICING
1. Beat the cream cheese and icing sugar together until well combined and soft.
2. Stir in the lemon juice. Spread onto the top of the cake and decorate with grated lemon zest.
Serves eight to 10
Take beetroot cake, for example. While I do like beetroot, it somehow does not fit my idea of an afternoon tea cake. But I read that beetroot chocolate cake has many fans. Maybe I will try it some time.
Apparently, parsnips, cauliflower and sweet potato are also among the more unusual bases for a tasty cake.
But back to zucchini cake, which has long been one of my favourites.
The grated zucchini gives the cake moisture and an interesting flavour. Choose unblemished zucchinis. Wash and grate them - skin and all - for extra flavour.
If they seem a bit watery, place the grated zucchini bits in a sieve to drain for about 20 minutes. Push the grated shreds down to squeeze out any excess moisture.
There are other possible additions, depending on your taste preferences. Add nuts to the cake mix for a little bit of crunch - I like to use walnuts but pecan nuts are also good.
And medjool dates add a rich flavour although most brands of dried dates are fine. I also like to add shredded fresh ginger for a bit of tang.
The cake is excellent served plain, but cream cheese and lemon icing really complete the experience.
I'm glad to say that our new neighbours enjoyed both the curries and the cake. After a lunch that lasted several hours, we decided we should find another reason to get together again soon.
Maybe that's when I will experiment with beetroot chocolate cake.