Now here’s something different you can do with zucchini: dessert! Believe it or not, the mild flavor of zucchini lends itself as nicely to sweet dishes as it does to savory ones. And this dish is the proof: scarpaccia dolce from the northern Tuscan coastal town of Viareggio. And no, it’s not some new-fangled idea. This recipe goes back to the year 1300. You can read the backstory on its curious name (which means “old shoe”) and interesting origins in the Notes below.
Scarpaccia is super-simple to make. You simply mix up the batter, fold in thinly sliced or shredded zucchini, pour it all into a well buttered baking pan, and it’s into the oven for about hour or so. Let your scarpaccia cool and enjoy, dusted with confectioner’s sugar if you like. Besides dessert, it’s delicious with a cup of coffee or tea in the morning or mid-afternoon.
- 400-500g (1 lb or a bit less) zucchini, trimmed and shredded or very thinly sliced
For the batter:
- 200g (1-2/3 cups) flour
- 225g (1-1/4 cups) sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 475ml (2 cups) milk
- 1 egg (optional)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Grated zest of one lemon
For baking and serving:
- Olive oil
- Confectioner’s sugar
Trim off both ends of each zucchini, then either shred them on the coarse side of cheese grater, or slice them as thinly as you can manage. (If you have one, a mandolin, set to its thinnest setting, is ideal for the job.) Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer) mix the flour, sugar and baking powder. Add the milk, vanilla extract and grated lemon zest until you have a smooth batter. Fold the shredded or sliced zucchini into the batter.
Butter a baking dish generously, then pour in the zucchini batter. Drizzle a bit of olive on top, then place in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about an hour, until cooked through and nicely browned on top.
Check on your scarpaccia every 20 minutes or so. If it’s getting a bit too brown for your liking, you can lower the oven temperature to 180C/350F. On the other hand, if towards the end of baking you find your scarpaccia isn’t brown enough, you can run the cake under the broiler for a few minutes.
Remove from the oven and set the baking pan on a rack. Let cool completely.
Serve your scarpaccia at room temperature, dusted with confectioners sugar.
Notes on Scarpaccia dolce
Ideally, you’ll use young and tender zucchini with light green skins for your scarpaccia. Their delicate taste and texture lends itself so well to this sweet treatment. Older zucchini can have a slightly bitter quality and, if they’re really old, get rather watery, too. So-called baby zucchini, which you can sometimes find packaged in better supermarkets, would work perfectly. But so long as your zucchini aren’t too long in the tooth, they should also do fine.
I used a round springform baking pan to make my scarpaccia, and it worked perfectly. It allowed me to release the sides for quicker cooling and serving. But you will also see scarpaccia made in baking sheet and cut into squares. Either way, it shouldn’t be terribly thick. Although often translated as a “zucchini cake”, scarpaccia is more of a tart, both in its relative thinness and in its custard-like texture.
The recipe in this post is adapted from a recipe in La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, published in the US by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. The only major change I made was to add an egg to the batter, which is something I’ve found in every Italian language source. And I’ve sliced rather than shredded the zucchini as La Cucina suggests. Again, every Italian language source I’ve seen tells you to slice them. My only guess is that the Accademia recipe is compensating for the larger zucchini you tend to find in the US. And yes, if your zucchini are very large, perhaps it’s better to shred them. And if they look watery, let them stand for a while to wilt and squeeze them dry before adding them to the batter.
Although iconic Italian recipes are notorious for their multifarious variations, the recipes for this one are remarkably consistent. The one thing that does vary a lot from recipe to recipe is the ratio of zucchini to batter ingredients. A good number of recipes call for less batter than in the La Cucina recipe, and a few even more, but I was happy with the balance here. The actual contents of the batter tend to be pretty uniform, but some recipes have you throw a few basil leaves in, and some a spoonful or so of melted butter or oil. And, as mentioned, most—but not all—recipes call for an egg or sometimes two. In one recipe I’ve seen, almonds are also added in.
Scarpaccia comes both sweet and savory. (Hence the “dolce“, meaning sweet in Italian, in the name of this version of the dish.) In the neighboring town of Camaiore, they make a savory scarpaccia in much the same way as Viareggio’s sweet one, but without the sugar, of course. Thinly sliced tender spring onions and zucchini flowers are added to the batter along with the zucchini. For this savory version of scarpaccia, fresh herbs and oil or melted butter are de rigueur. And grated cheese can go in as well.
The name and origins of Scarpaccia
The name scarpaccia, by the way, means “old shoe”. It certainly doesn’t make the dish sound very appetizing. Although the etymology is uncertain, according to local lore the dish gets its odd name because a properly made scarpaccia should be thin and a bit crusty, just like an old shoe. Another story has it that scarpaccia goes back to Castruccio Castracani, the consul of Lucca and lord of a castle nearby the tiny village of Colognora. One day around the year 1300, short on victuals, he called on the local peasants for help. All he managed to coax out of them, though, were lots of surplus zucchini, some flour and a few eggs. With little alternative, Castracani ordered his cooks to just mix the peasants’ offerings together and cook them up. And so, they say, scarpaccia was born, made of poor and humble ingredients, just like an old shoe.
Historical note: As an astute reader pointed out, zucchini is a New World import and wasn’t around in 1300. But Europe did have a zucchini-like native gourd Lagenaria siceraria, called calabash in English back then called zucca in Italian. (These days, zucca means pumpkin, another New World import.) If you know the popular Sicilian vegetable called cucuzza, it’s apparently very similar. I’m fairly sure that’s what the peasants actually offered up to their local lord, assuming the story is true.
The use of vegetables in a sweet dish is unusual in Italian cookery, to say the least, although scarpaccia dolce isn’t entirely unique. Another vegetable-based dessert that comes to mind is melanzane al cioccolato, a sweet dish of eggplant in chocolate sauce from Campania. And then there’s tortelli di zucca, where the pumpkin filling has a certain sweetness from amaretti cookies, although the dish on the whole is a savory one. Beyond that, I’m hamstrung trying to come up with other examples. (Dear readers, feel free to chime in if you know of other examples.) Of course, the idea may not seem quite as unusual to Americans, who love their Carrot Cake and their Pumpkin Pie.
Scarpaccia dolce viareggina
- 400-500g 1 lb or a bit less zucchini trimmed and shredded or very thinly sliced
For the batter:
- 200g 1-2/3 cup flour
- 225g 1-1/4 cups sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 475ml 2 cups milk
- 1-2 eggs optional
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 lemon, zest of grated
For baking and serving:
- olive oil
- confectioner's sugar
- Trim off both ends of each zucchini, then either shred them on the coarse side of cheese grater, or slice them as thinly as you can manage. (If you have one, a mandolin, set to its thinnest setting, is ideal for the job.) Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer) mix the flour, sugar and baking powder. Add the milk, vanilla extract and grated lemon zest until you have a smooth batter. Fold the shredded or sliced zucchini into the batter.
- Butter a baking dish generously, then pour in the zucchini batter. Drizzle a bit of olive on top, then place in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about an hour, until cooked through and nicely browned on top.
- While it's baking, check on your scarpaccia every 20 minutes or so. If it's getting a bit too brown for your liking, you can lower the oven temperature to 180C/350F. On the other hand, if towards the end of baking you find your scarpaccia isn't brown enough, you can run the cake under the broiler for a few minutes at the end.
- Remove from the oven and set the baking pan on a rack. Let cool completely.
- Serve your scarpaccia at room temperature, dusted with confectioner's sugar.