Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cake

What’s the best way to get your daily dose of vegetables? In a cake, I say! OK, you’re not going to win any “Nutrition Expert of the Year” award by throwing zucchini in a dessert, but you will win people over with this moist, delicious creation. I went on a bit of a zucchini bender last weekend, after my co-worker Nita brought me a gourd the size of a baseball bat (well, half the length, but otherwise the comparison is accurate…). Her mother had pawned the monster off on her, and she brought it to me, rationalizing that a foodie would accept the challenge of how to make use of massive amounts of the veggie. And she was right.

So this was the first of three new recipes I tried in order to use up the behemoth. I found several variations of this on allrecipes.com, and added in the cinnamon and cloves per a reviewer’s comment. How was it? DEE-licious. I will definitely make it again! And my taste-testing co-workers concurred. They all thought these bars/cake were great. No one minded the added fiber in the dessert—it only made it all the more moist and memorable.

Serves 12-16

½ cup milk
1½ teaspoons distilled white vinegar
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon cloves
½ cup butter, softened
1½ cups white sugar
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat an oven to 325° Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a 9×13-inch pan. Mix the milk and vinegar in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes to sour the milk.

Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, cinnamon, baking powder, and cloves in a bowl. Set aside. Beat the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl on medium to high speed. Add in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vegetable oil and vanilla extract, and beat until combined. Slowly add the flour mixture alternately with the soured milk until all ingredients are combined. Fold in the zucchini. Pour batter into the prepared pan, and sprinkle with chocolate chips.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Ice cream or whipped cream topping always a welcome addition, but not required. Cover with foil if serving next day.

Strawberry Rhubarb Oat Bars

The sweet-tart combo of strawberries and rhubarb is to die for, in my humble opinion. And since my rhubarb is threatening to take over the world this spring, I’m trying to find new and creative ways to use it up. When I saw a recipe on Better Homes & Garden’s website for bars using my favorite fruit duo, I said, “I’m in!” Then once I started perusing the recipe, I realized 1) the pan/batch was waaaaaaay too small to serve my family or co-workers, and 2) it looked strikingly similar to my blueberry breakfast bars previously posted! (Which DOES make a large enough batch to serve my family or co-workers…)

So I kinda combined my blueberry bar recipe with the BH&G recipe, and I think we’ve got us a winner here, people! Rhubarb is a little more finicky fruit than the berries, though. So it took a little trial and error to get it simmered the right length of time, and make sure the sugar ratio was on point. Now I’ve done all the heavy lifting for you. All you have to do is bake up a batch!

Makes 15 bars

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1½ cups all-purpose flour*
¾ cup firmly-packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup butter, melted
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon ground ginger
3 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Grease an 11″x17″ pan with butter and set aside. In large bowl, combine oats, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Stir to combine. Add melted butter and stir until all of oat mixture is combined with butter. Reserve 1 cup of the mixture and set aside. Press remaining oat mixture in bottom of prepared baking dish. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

While crust is baking, combine rhubarb, granulated sugar, water, and ginger in large saucepan and heat on high. Once mixture starts to boil, turn to medium and simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Rhubarb should start breaking up, and it should thicken up. Add strawberries and return heat to high. Once it starts to boil again, turn down to medium and simmer for 3-5 minutes. In small bowl or cup, combine cornstarch and water. Drizzle in to rhubarb and strawberries and stir until mixture thickens up a bit. Pour on top of baked crust and sprinkle with reserved oat crumbs. Bake for additional 30** minutes. Let cool completely before cutting into bars.

*NOTE: I’ve started using Costco’s Ultragrain flour, which is a non-GMO flour and may be tolerable to those who are sensitive to gluten. But it’s not for those with celiac disease!

**Next time I make these, I may try baking these 40 minutes once crust is topped with fruit. Rhubarb seems to require a longer baking time than berries, peaches, pears, etc. I was concerned about the top burning if I did them longer than 30 minutes, but I think they would have been fine.

Chocolate Brownie Bars

FullSizeRenderA combo of Hershey’s cocoa and semi-sweet chocolate chips give these bars a rich, chocolatey appeal, and are pretty quick to throw together. I clipped the original recipe from a magazine ad for Eagle Brand® sweetened condensed milk (the same one where I got the delicious Squirrel Bars recipe previously posted), and they were called Triple Layer Chocolate Bars. Now, I’m no Einstein when numbers are involved, but I couldn’t come up with three distinct layers in these. My co-workers called these “brownie bars” when I brought them in to work, so let’s go with that. (My husband was kinda “meh” about this particular recipe, and I could see he wasn’t going to finish off the pan, so that’s why my colleagues were summoned for a second opinion. People, I’ve created a monster! His standards for baked-goods has risen significantly since I first met him, scarfing down a sleeve of Oreos after his Arby’s roast beef sandwich.)

These aren’t super sugary sweet, and hold together fairly well because of the sweetened condensed milk in the middle. They’re an easy picnic or potluck take-along, so give them a whirl and see what you think. Just don’t offer any to my husband Rich. I’m sure you can find a more appreciative audience.

Makes 20 bars

1½ cups graham cracker crumbs (1 package, plus 2-3 more crackers)*
½ cup cocoa, divided into ¼ cup and ¼ cup
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup butter (1 stick), melted
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated milk!)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour or Namaste gluten-free flour blend
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 (12-ounce) package semi-sweet chocolate chips, or 1½ cups of same

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine graham cracker crumbs, ¼ cup of the cocoa, sugar, and melted butter in medium bowl. Stir until butter is thoroughly incorporated. Press into bottom of 13″x9″ baking dish. In medium bowl attached to electric mixer, beat sweetened condensed milk, flour, egg, vanilla, and baking powder. Stir in nuts and pour mixture on top of graham cracker crust. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Bake 25 minutes or until set. Cool before cutting. Store tightly covered.

*NOTE: Use gluten-free graham crackers to make these if you’re GF.

Also, I wondered if maybe a step was missing in this recipe. Usually a graham cracker crust recipe has you baking the graham crackers for 10 minutes or so before adding other layers. That would make these have more distinct layers, and would make for a crispier crust. I might try that next time, and will update the process here if I do.

No-bake Chocolate, Pretzel, and Peanut Butter Squares

FullSizeRenderIt takes longer to type the name of these salty-sweet treats than it does to make them. My friend Sherie made these for the book club babes last time she hosted, and since she’d used Trader Joe’s gluten-free pretzels, all her GF friends were delighted to have sweets they could eat! Then when I was dying for a wheat-free cookie or a bar last week (that didn’t taste like sawdust), I asked her for her recipe. She’d found it on foodnetwork.com, recipe courtesy of country star Trisha Yearwood. My only adjustment was to use Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate chips instead of milk chocolate, as that’s what I keep on hand.

All you need for tools is a big bowl for stirring, and a 9″x13″ pan to chill them in. No oven! All you need for ingredients is butter (of course!), pretzels, confectioner’s sugar, peanut butter, and chocolate chips. I found an 8-ounce bag of Snyder’s gluten-free pretzels at Kowalski’s, but I’m sure there’s a good brand at just about any grocery store. The original recipe didn’t call for GF pretzels, so use whatever kind of pretzels your little heart desires, my Valentine. 

These were so easy! (In fact, your kid’s pet hamster could probably make them, unsupervised.) I thought I was making these treats just for me, but my husband loved them, too. In fact he liked them so much he ate half a pan, all by his lone self in two days time. BOOM! He told me someone broke into the house and ate them. They didn’t touch the TV and computers, but ate my bars. Imagine that! Smart thieves.

Ease rating: Judy easy (anyone can make them!)

Makes 20 bars

1½ sticks (¾ cup) butter, melted
2 cups (8-ounce bag) pretzel rods or sticks, crushed into crumbs*
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
1¼ cups smooth peanut butter, divided
1½ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

In large bowl, stir together melted butter, pretzel crumbs, confectioner’s sugar, and 1 cup of the peanut butter. (Recipe calls for smooth, but I only buy chunky, so there are visible peanut bits in my chocolate “frosting.”) Press mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 9″x13″ pan. Combine the chocolate chips and the remaining ¼ cup peanut butter in a microwave-safe bowl or 2-cup measuring cup and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir, and microwave for additional 30 seconds. Stir again, until peanut butter and chocolate are smooth and creamy. If needed, heat for another 15 or 30 seconds, until all chocolate chips are melted. Spread over peanut-pretzel layer. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour before cutting into squares. Do not need to keep refrigerated once chocolate has cooled. Keep covered, and store at room temperature.

*NOTE: Gluten-free pretzels have a unique texture, and do not crumble quite as easily as regular pretzels. You can try crushing them by putting them in a Ziplock bag and using a rolling pin to pulverize, but I found I needed a food processor to crush them into crumbs.

Lime Bars

IMG_1078Feeling citrusy? Try these refreshingly zippy lime bars for a break from all the pumpkin-flavored offerings that take over the world in the fall. These are the same recipe as the lemon bars you’ve all tasted before (they often appear at potlucks or post-funeral lunches), just subbing in lime for the lemon in the same amounts. I won’t give credit to any one source, because it would be easier to tell you who doesn’t post this recipe on their blog or have it printed in their cookbook—that’s how popular it is. I did see one source that suggested the yield was 72 bars. Maybe if you’re feeding mice, you could cut them that small. But not on my watch, no sir! I like my sweets substantial. If your teeth don’t ache from the size of the bar and the concentration of sugar, I’ll hang up my apron for good.

Makes 18-24 bars

Rating: Easy

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup confectioners sugar
1 cup butter, cold
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
13  cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon lime zest
Additional confectioners sugar for topping

Preheat oven to350° Fahrenheit. Combine flour and sugar; cut in butter. Press crust into 13″x9″ pan and bake for 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat eggs on high with whisk attachment until pale yellow. Gradually add sugar, salt, lime juice, and lime zest. Continue beating on high. Pour over hot crust.

Bake another 20-25 minutes until golden brown. May need to cover with foil to avoid over-browning towards end. Dust with confectioners sugar. Cool and cut into bars.

Black Bean Brownies

IMG_1093If it wasn’t in the title, you wouldn’t believe the secret ingredient in these moist and chocolatey gluten-free brownies was a can of black beans! I found this recipe on food.com, and it  had been raved about by many-a reader. I’m experimenting with a gluten-free diet, and have been going crazy for some baked goods, preferably something that didn’t taste like ground chalk had been used in lieu of flour. (Those of you who’ve had to avoid gluten for a while know what I’m talking about…) This looked intriguing, and as it only makes a 9″x9″ pan, I figured I didn’t have much to loose if they were nasty. But surprise, surprise! They weren’t a waste of ingredients or time—they went together in just minutes, and tasted pretty good.

IMG_1080The first time I made these, I added both a teaspoon of baking soda and baking powder to the mix, as other reviewers suggested it would make them more cake-like. That was too much leavening, and they tasted metallic. (They also sunk in the middle, another sign of too much soda or powder.) I dusted them with powdered sugar instead of frosting them, and as my co-worker Darin said, they looked so rich and dark, you expected a little more chocolate taste than you got. (Darin is SUCH a whiner… Not!) So the next time I made them, I frosted them with half a recipe of buttercream frosting (from the back of the Hershey’s cocoa container), and that gave me the rich chocolate flavor I was lusting after. Using only 1 teaspoon baking soda worked better, too. The next time I make them, I think I’ll try them without any soda, and see if they come out fudgey, or just gooey. 

Note that you will need a blender or food processor to have success with this batter, and you’ll want to puree until no grains of bean remain before baking. Other than that, this recipe is a piece of cake! Or more accurately, a chunk of brownie. 

1 (15½ ounce) can black beans (rinsed and drained)
3 eggs
3 tablespoons oil
6 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup sugar

Buttercream frosting

3 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups confectioners sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1-2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Combine ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until completely pureed. Pour into a greased 8″x8″ or 9″x9″ cake pan or baking dish. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Let cool completely before frosting or cutting.

For frosting, cream butter in medium mixing bowl, using wire whisk attachment for mixer. In separate medium-size bowl, combine powdered sugar and cocoa. Add about half of sugar and cocoa to creamed butter, then drizzle some milk into bowl and stir. Add the rest of sugar/cocoa, and the vanilla, and as much milk as needed to make frosting a good spreading consistency. Frost cooled brownies. Lick bowl, spatula, beaters, etc. Wipe face to remove evidence.

Cranberry Pecan Bars

IMG_1157A pop of rich red makes these cranberry bars look special enough for company, yet these sweet-tart treats are easy enough to make any old day. With cranberries showing up in grocery stores soon, I thought I’d share this delicious recipe I found on www.food.com, sent in by Wisconsinite and cranberry-lover Bonnie Young. They use mostly kitchen staples, and mix up in just a few minutes. I found they work better with frozen cranberries, as the fresh tend to mush and bleed into the batter and that makes them not so pretty. But the frozen berries make the batter very stiff, so you have to pat (or smash, if that’s more your mood) it into the pan with a spatula. Worth the effort though—the result is a deliciously chewy cake-like bar with just enough tang to keep you wanting more.

Makes 12-15 bars

½ cup butter, softened
2 eggs
1½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped pecans
2 cups frozen cranberries
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Butter a 9″x13″ baking dish and set aside. In large mixing bowl, cream butter. Add eggs and cream again. Add sugar, and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat again. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add to creamed butter and sugar mixture. Stir in nuts with large wooden spoon until combined. Fold in cranberries. Press batter into prepared baking dish and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until top of bars are light golden brown. (Bars may not appear to be cooked all the way through when removed from oven, but they will set up as they cool.) Sprinkle with powdered sugar and let cool to room temp before cutting with very sharp knife.

(Shout out to Monique Kleinhuizen, who brought me a huge bag of fresh cranberries—the size of grapes—from a cranberry festival her family attended in Wisconsin. Used them in the batch of bars pictures here. Awesome berries!!!)

Oatmeal Carmelitas

FullSizeRenderOats and caramel and chocolate—oh my! This recipe was entered in the Pillsbury Bake-Off by Minnesotan Erlyce Larson in 1967, and won hands down. One bite of these gooey taste treats, and you’ll agree whole-heartedly with the judges decision. My friend Lois brought these to a gathering at our house, and they were the hit of the dessert table. (I consumed more than my fair share, so that’s why there are so few left on the plate in the photo. Sadly, this image doesn’t do them justice.) My mother makes a similar Caramel Candy Bar (posted a few weeks ago). Mom’s recipe is to die for, but her recipe requires laboriously unwrapping dozens of caramel candies to make the luscious middle layer, while this recipe uses a short-cut—a jar of caramel ice cream topping. Next time you’re planning a party, invite Lois. And ask her to bring these heavenly bars. Mmmmmm.


2 cups all-purpose or unbleached flour
2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups margarine or butter, softened


1 (12.5 ounce) jar (1 cup) caramel ice cream topping
3 tablespoons all-purpose or unbleached flour
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Heat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Grease 13″ x 9″ pan. In large bowl, combine all crust ingredients; mix at low speed until crumbly. Reserve half of crumb mixture (about 3 cups) for topping. Press remaining crumb mixture in bottom of greased pan. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in small bowl, combine caramel topping and 3 tablespoons flour; blend well.

Remove partially baked crust from oven; sprinkle with chocolate chips and nuts. Drizzle evenly with caramel mixture; sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture. Return to oven; bake an additional 18 to 22 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 1 hour or until completely cooled. Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours or until filling is set. Cut into bars.

Squirrel Bars

IMG_0896Don’t worry—no squirrels were harmed in making these scrumptious chocolate and pecan bars. Originally called “Chocolate Nut Toffee Bars,” this recipe came from a magazine insert promoting Eagle® Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk and Hershey’s products. And of course there’s a story behind our re-naming… The first time I made these, I set them out on our porch to cool. When I went out to get the bars an hour later, all the nuts had been stealthily removed, and there were tiny little claw marks marring the top chocolate layer. It looked like a miniature version of Wolverine had attacked the pan. Henceforth, the bars have been called “Squirrel Bars” at our house. We have often wondered if some poor little squirrel needed a few cavities filled after digging into our treats…

The bottom layer is similar to shortbread, only cocoa powder has been added to give the crust a chocolate twist. As simmered sweetened condensed milk makes up the middle layer, and just chocolate chips and nuts top them off, they whip up rather quickly. The hardest thing about this recipe is waiting for them to cool so you can eat them. But if you happen to be a squirrel, no need to wait. Feel free to dive right in.

Makes 24-36 bars

1 cup butter, softened (divided)
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup Hershey’s cocoa powder
1 (14-ounce) can Eagle® Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk (NOT evaporated milk)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (6 ounces) Hershey’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips*
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Grease 9″x13″ glass baking dish. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the softened butter for use later. In large mixer bowl, beat remaining butter and sugar until fluffy. Add flour and cocoa, mix well. With floured hands, press cocoa mixture into bottom of prepared baking pan. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in medium sauce pan, combine reserved butter and sweetened condensed milk. Cook on medium to low heat, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Pour over baked crust. Bake 10 minutes longer, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately top with chocolate chips. Let stand 1 minutes, then smooth out melted chips with back of large spoon while still warm. Top with nuts. Cool. Cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.

*I’m a fan of Nestle’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips myself, but I have to be true to the originators of the recipe here.

Caramel Candy Bars

IMG_0884Some foods are good because of the warm memories attached to them as much as the ingredients. These gooey caramel and chocolate bars fall into that category. My mother always made these for trips to my cousin Dale’s lake property, and my sisters and I couldn’t wait to get to Swan Lake—of course we were pumped to go water skiing, but digging into these decadent bars was a top priority, too. Mom would make a couple batches, cut and stack them in a Folger’s coffee can with wax paper between each layer, and stash ’em in the freezer. (Unlike most baked goods, these suffer no ill-consequences from being frozen!) Once these were pulled from their secret hiding place, the frozen squares would thaw in about 15 minutes, and were the consistency of a chewy candy bar. With mouths full of chocolate-caramel goodness, we could forget about itching our mosquito bites for a while. (And how deathly afraid we were to go to the latrine alone.)

A couple nights ago, we took a trip down memory lane when my Mom brought over a pan of bars. They were even better than I remembered—partly because this time we weren’t covered in mosquito bites, and dreading trips through the dark woods to the outhouse.

These are very similar to the Pillsbury Bake-off Carmelita Oat Bars (to be posted later), except this recipe uses caramel candies, more butter, and has double the amount of chocolate chips and nuts. More butter, chocolate, and nuts? Can’t go wrong there.

Makes 45-48 bars


2 cups All-purpose or unbleached flour
2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups margarine or butter, softened


64 Kraft caramels, unwrapped*
1/2 cup half and half, or milk
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Grease large baking sheet (10″ x 15″). In large bowl, combine flour, oatmeal, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, and butter; mix at low speed until crumbly. Reserve half of crumb mixture (about 3 cups) for topping. Press remaining crumb mixture in bottom of greased pan. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine caramels and milk in glass bowl or large glass measuring cup, and heat on high in microwave for about 3 minutes, or until mixture can be stirred smooth.

Remove partially baked crust from oven; sprinkle with chocolate chips and nuts. Drizzle evenly with melted caramels; sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture. Return to oven; bake an additional 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 30 minutes to 1 hour, then cut into bars. Store bars in airtight container with wax paper between layers. They can be left at room temp once completely cooled, or frozen to be served at a later time.

*This is a bit of a chore. If unwrapping these candies is too tedious for you, call my Dad. He has the patience of a saint and happily performs the task, knowing the end result will be some sinfully delicious treats.