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Chunks of toasted pecans and dates work magic with their texture in this Orange Zucchini Cake. Photo by Sue Doeden

Got zucchini? Moist cake flavored with orange liqueur, zest makes good use of summer's bounty

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Many years ago, when my husband and I bought our first house, I couldn't believe our luck when we moved in just as the beautiful vegetable garden in the small back yard was profusely producing and ready for harvest. We enjoyed garden-fresh meals for weeks.

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The next summer, I was filled with optimism as I planted corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, carrots and zucchini - lots of zucchini.

Chalk it up to inexperience, but I had no idea zucchini vines would become gigantic snakes that would slither and slide throughout the garden, under the fence into the neighbor's yard, and into the green grass in our yard. But it wasn't just the vines that grew. Bright blossoms became green, small and slender summer squash. Just overnight, those dainty squash became gigantic in size.

It wasn't long before my life was being overrun by zucchini. Friends and neighbors took some. My husband's co-workers graciously accepted a few.

I was in the kitchen baking up a storm, trying every zucchini bread, cake and muffin recipe I could get my hands on. I needed help. I made an emergency call to my mentor and friend, Andrea Halgrimson. I had gone to many of her cooking classes and I knew she would be able to rescue me from zucchini strangulation.

Andrea told me I could eat the blossoms, thereby reducing the squash production. She kindly loaned me a book about zucchini that included recipes.

I tiptoed through the zucchini vines, examining the blossoms. When I was sure there were no bees working deep inside the flower, I plucked them. That summer my imagination went wild as I stuffed the edible blossoms with rice and cheese, Italian sausage and peppers, cream cheese and onions. All served with zucchini bread, of course. My husband was probably thinking I was in need of a professional zucchini intervention.

Now I realize my family's zucchini diet that summer was actually quite nutritious. Zucchini, as well as other varieties of summer squash, with their high moisture content, contain very few calories. They contribute vitamins A and C, along with iron, calcium, part of the vitamin B complex, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine. Combining summer squash with cheese and/or milk boosts protein and calcium levels. With its tender, edible skin and seeds, zucchini is also a source of fiber.

I haven't had much of a vegetable garden since that summer. I never planted zucchini again. There's no need to. Every year at this time, someone I know will surely be giving away zucchini.

I enjoy dicing, slicing or grating zucchini to add to salads, sauces and casseroles. But my heart still belongs to all things baked with zucchini hiding inside.

Orange Zucchini Cake blends my favorite muffin recipe with one of my carrot cake recipes. It is a dense cake, so moist and flavorful the cake monsters in your house won't be able to leave it alone. The cake is flavored with orange liqueur and grated orange zest with lots of spicy cinnamon. Chunks of toasted pecans and dates work magic with their texture. Orange-flavored cream cheese frosting puts it completely over the top.

Make Orange Zucchini Cake. You'll make many people happy and you'll have one less zucchini in the kitchen.

Orange Zucchini Cake

1 1/2 cups canola oil

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

1/4 cup orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 cups coarsely grated peeled zucchini

1 cup chopped, toasted pecan halves

1 cup chopped dates

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 13-x 9- x 2-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to beat oil and sugar together until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add orange liqueur, orange zest and vanilla extract and mix well.

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Add to the mixing bowl all at once and beat at low speed until just incorporated. Stir in zucchini, pecans and dates. Batter will be thick.

Dump the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in pan on a wire rack. Spread frosting on cooled cake. Yields 12 to 15 servings.

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

3 to 3 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar

2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer in a large bowl until smooth. Add powdered sugar and remaining ingredients. Beat until frosting is smooth.

Tips from the cook

--Raisins or dried cranberries are nice alternatives to the dates.

--Toast pecan halves on a baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes or until fragrant. Cool before using.

--If you don't care to use orange liqueur in the cake and frosting, use frozen orange juice concentrate that has been thawed

--This cake freezes well. Once the cake has cooled completely, cover tightly and store in freezer for up to a month.

--The zest of an orange is the thin, colored part of the skin. Avoid the white bitter pith just beneath the thin zest.

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