Fennel seeds are an Indian favourite, right? As kids, we would shamelessly pack fennel mouth fresheners, that were handed out at restaurants, into tissue papers and enjoy them for the rest of the day. Ah good old days… Fennel, or saunf as we know it, has this sweet savoury taste that is hard not to love. This readily available Indian spice can be so much more than a free loot at a local restaurant you know. And one fine day, out of nowhere it came to me – how about fennel in a cake?? How would that turn out to be?
Pretty darn good apparently 😉
Thankfully there was this caramel cake recipe, whipped out by my friend one Sunday afternoon, that has remained in my mind ever since. See I wasn’t much of a fan when it comes to pound cakes or any cake that requires butter because they either end up being too dry or hard like a rock. This cake, however, was none of those things. Super moist and falling apart, it was delish! It was decided that this caramel cake recipe would be an ideal match for fennel and thus began my experimentation.
Now if you have ever attempted to make caramel, you know it’s no easy feat. I should know cause my first attempt at this recipe was a mess. As soon as I poured my caramel into the cake batter it seized up and hardened. I still ended up baking the cake batter with caramel shards in it, cause I just couldn’t afford to waste all the time and effort. The caramel of course melted into the batter in the oven and the cake was edible, but the fennel was completely lost. My Evernote recipe list was updated with a big FAIL typed next to the Caramel Fennel Cake and the proverbial (kitchen) towel was thrown.
Fennel, I learnt in my failure, seems to have a delicate flavour that can be easily lost when cooked. Also, I used crushed fennel seeds that were aromatic when I put them in the batter but once out of the oven there was no saying the cake had fennel in it. Surely you can’t redeem the recipe with this acquired information, right? “Crumb, how about a crumb mix with whole fennel in it?” My mind astonishes me most of the times as if it is problem-solving without my knowledge. I also did a quick search for a trustworthy caramel syrup recipe and Evernote was duly notified about the change and the whisk was back in business.
Second attempt went superbly well. I got a thumbs up from familia; hard critics to please by the way. The kids my mom tutors also got to enjoy some cake too, and one of the kids recognised the fennel flavour – SUCCESS! The trick I realised was to use whole fennel in the caramel as well as in the crumb, and then you get this lovely bite of the seed as you munch on the cake. Not to forget the lovely crunch from the crumb topping itself.
So there you have it, the genesis of this moist and crunchy cake that would be perfect with a cup of chai. It is also a good make-ahead cake recipe because the cake remains just as moist the following day, kept in an air tight container at room temperature of course. The sweetness is also spot on, in fact you might think my sugar proportions may be wrong, but once you bite into this cake you will appreciate the balanced flavour. However, if you do like your cakes to be much sweeter, just drizzle some sugar syrup on them.
- 1 tbsp fennel, roasted
- ½cup granulated sugar
- ½cup water
- 1-1.5cup crushed digestive biscuits (I used Marie biscuits)
- 2-3tbsp cold butter
- ¼cup powdered sugar
- 1tbsp fennel, roasted
- 1 cup maida (flour)
- 1tsp baking powder
- ¼tsp baking soda
- 100gms butter, room temperature
- ¼cup caster sugar or granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 1tsp vanilla essence
- ½ cup milk, room temperature
- If you are using a baking pan, line it with parchment paper and keep it aside. Make sure you gently roast the fennel seeds in a pan until fragrant over a low flame.
- For the caramel fennel syrup, place all the three ingredients in a small saucepan. Give the pan an occasional swirl, avoid stirring excessively. The sugar will begin to bubble and brown eventually. Once the liquid turns golden and syrupy, and begins to coat the spoon, take it off the heat and keep it aside to cool.*
- For the Fennel crumb, add all the four ingredients in a dish. Make sure the biscuits are crushed by hand or with a pestle. do not use a mixer. Rub the cold butter into the mix with your fingers, until it is well combined. Keep it aside.*
- To prepare the cake batter, first sift the flour, baking powder and soda, and keep it aside. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar using an electric beater or whisk until it is light and fluffy (took me about 6-8mins with the electric heater). Incorporate one egg at a time into the batter. Finally, mix in the essence and milk. At this stage, I will preheat the oven at 180-degree celsius for 10-15 minutes.
- Now back to the batter; using a spatula, gradually fold in the flour mix into the batter - preferably in two batches. Don't over mix the batter at this stage. Spoon the batter into cupcake moulds or baking pan. Top it with the fennel crumb. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 15-18 minutes at 180 degree celsius for cupcakes, and 20-25 minutes for a regular cake.*
- Serve with a hot cup of chai. The cake remains moist for good 2-3 days at room temperature.
On a warmer day, I would suggest keeping the crumb mix in the fridge till it is ready to use.
Baking cook time tends to vary from oven to oven. You know the cake is ready when it browns evenly on top. You can also insert a clean knife in to the cake, if it comes out clean, the cake is ready.