Pain d’épices is a traditional French quick bread, rich with honey and warm spices. It’s often served around the holidays but, since it bears such a noticeable resemblance to American banana bread and zucchini bread, I love to serve a variation of it in late summer when the garden is overflowing with zucchini.
Pain d’épices has roots in ancient China and was brought to Europe during the spice trade of the Middle Ages. What we recognize today as spice bread (or gingerbread, though American gingerbread is nothing at all like pain d’épices) has been evolving from Alsatian recipes dating back to the 1400s when monks would commonly bake pain d’épices for les fêtes de Noël (Christmastime). How wonderful it must have been to be at that Christmas feast! As you might imagine, from a recipe that’s stood the test of time, each region has developed their own unique interpretation of the bread – from the combination of different spices to the types of flours to the amount of honey used to sweeten the bread and give it that gorgeous mahogany colour. There are, however, two main elements that set pain d’epices apart from other quick breads, at least in my mind, and the first of which is honey. Traditionally, it was sweetened with the dark, sharply flavoured buckwheat honey that was produced in Brittany. In fact, because the bread contains so much honey, it’s often sold by beekeepers. The second characteristic that sets it apart is the mélange of warm, autumnal spices. It’s heavy on cinnamon and ginger, with notes of clove and nutmeg. Sometimes anise seed is added to the mix, along with hints of cracked black pepper or ground mace. The spices vary greatly by region and, of course, by the discerning tastes the individual bakers.
Because I have combined two recipes here – a French pain d’épices with an American zucchini bread – I took a few liberties with the essential ingredients. I wanted to keep the traditional spicy, honeyed flavour and use the spices I love most; however, since honey burns so easily, especially at our high elevation, and there’s nothing worse than the jarring bitterness of burnt honey, I used a combination of honey and sugar. This keeps the flavours traditional while preventing the bread from becoming too dark. I really love the result. Whether you consider this an extra spicy loaf of zucchini bread or pain d’épices studded with summer squash, it provides the perfect transition between summer and fall and fits right into these first few weeks of September that, while still technically summer, have us all craving the rich breads and warm spices that epitomize autumn coziness. Just the aroma, while it bakes, will elicit all those cheery fall feels! I’ve made it twice, already, this week, and it’s only Tuesday.
Zucchini Pain d’Épices
(high altitude recipe*, makes 1 loaf)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup dark honey
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp fine salt
1 1/2 cups grated zucchini (packed tightly)
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C) and butter and flour a 9×4-inch (approx. 23×10 cm) loaf pan.
Melt the butter in a large mixing bowl. Cool slightly, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Whisk in the honey and vanilla. Place a mesh sieve over top of the bowl and add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Stir and tap the sieve so that the dry ingredients are well mixed as they fall into the wet ingredients.
With a wooden spoon, stir the batter until the ingredients are just combined. Fold in the the zucchini. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and spread evenly.
Bake for 50 – 60 minutes until the loaf is golden and a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for about 20 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool a few minutes longer before slicing.
*A note on baking: We live at an elevation of over 6000 feet (1830 m). This recipe works very well at high altitude, but I haven’t tested it at lower elevations.