A between weathers cake
Despite Sunday’s Easter feast, the weekend in general had a decidedly un-Easter feel. One may attribute this to the hard fact that every now and then, glancing out the window, blizzard-like conditions were shockingly present. I know, I know, I know… everyone is tired of complaining about the weather. But for me, it wasn’t even the weather in itself. The winter-is-supposed-to-be-over-depression really sunk in on Saturday’s visit to Markthalle Neun to scout out something vaguely Spring-like for our Easter meal. After stand upon stand of bottom of the barrel beets and a scrum of carrots and potatoes, I headed to the supermarket and settled on a couple of small bulbs of fennel grown in Italy.
Fennel just seems like it could fit to any time of the year. Fresh, herbaceous and light, it is appropriate raw in summer salads but can also be combined with enhancers like cream or butter for a wintery meal. What about in something sweet? Fennel in desserts I had not before experimented with, but when I stumbled across a recipe for fennel buttermilk cake in an old issue of Gourmet, I thought: perfect. It deceived nothing of seasonality – it felt appropriate for a holiday that is supposed to celebrate Spring, but did not feel anything of the sort. A chameleonic cake, if you will.
The preparation of the candied fennel is a bit time-consuming, but aside from that first step, the cake comes together quite easily. It can also be decorative, depending on how beautifully you arrange the fennel in the bottom of the cake pan (mine=not so beautifully) making it impressive for dinner parties or holidays.
I hope my next recipe will be with something that betrays the first signs of spring (can you tell I am dreaming of rhubarb?!), but in the meantime be content with the temperature-defying abilities of this fennel cake.
Recipe: Fennel Lemon Buttermilk Cake
- 2 small bulbs fennel
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 3 strips lemon zest, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
- crushed edible rose petals (optional)
- Lightly butter pan (I used springform) and line bottom and side with parchment paper. Lightly butter paper.
- Cut fennel bulbs lengthwise with slicer into enough 1/4-inch-thick slices to cover bottom of cake pan.
- Cover fennel with cold water in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Drain fennel and set aside. Add sugar, water (3/4 cup), zest, and fennel seeds to saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add fennel slices and very gently simmer until tender and translucent and liquid is syrupy, about 40 minutes. Lift fennel slices out with a fork and arrange decoratively in bottom of cake pan. Boil syrup to reduce to about 1/3 cup liquid. Cool syrup slightly, then pour over fennel, seeds and lemon strips and all.
- Preheat oven to 350ºF (170°C) with rack in middle
- Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in zest.
- At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and mixing until just combined. Gently spoon batter over topping, spreading evenly.
- Bake until cake is golden-brown and a wooden pick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan 15 minutes, then invert onto a plate and continue to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
- Garnish with crushed rose petals, if desired.