I've had a long and troubled relationship with fennel - it goes back to a childhood experience which can only be described as palate abuse. In order to be polite at the home of some friends of my parents, I had to consume a large bowl of bouillabaise so strongly flavored with fennel seed that nothing but the smoked eel in the soup could come close to conquering it. I managed to choke it down, but I was scarred for life in the fennel department :-) So, while I am quite fond of the root, the seed has never figured in anyway in my cooking.
A while back my cooking role model, Gloria, made some fabulous fennel scented sweet breadsticks, which started me on the road to fennel recovery. Fennel can be truly overpowering as I've mentioned, but I've since learned more about using this difficult spice in baking, and I recently felt the urge to modify a recipe I posted a few weeks ago to incorporate it. I liked the idea of modifying this cake to use pears and infuse it with fennel to bring an italian sort of flavoring to it.
In spite of the italian idea, I bought the fennel seed I used to make this at the Indian grocery store when I was there buying basmatic rice. The owner asked me if I wanted the "sweet fennel" or the regular kind. Who knew there were two kinds? So, I asked for sweet since I was making cake, and the bag I got was labeled Fennel Seed Lucknowi. For more information about fennel you can go here. I used very small Seckel pears from an heirloom orchard when I baked this cake, and it took 4 or 5 of them, but if you use regular sized pears a couple will do.
Aromatic Pear Cake
1-2 large pears, or 4-6 small ones
1-2 tsp grated oranged zest (~ 1/2 of the rind)
1/2 tsp fennel seed, coarsely ground in your mortar and pestle
1 cup flour
1 heaping tsp baking powder
1 scant cup sugar (about 7/8 cup)
4 TB butter, softened
2 TB brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8"x8" baking pan. Cream together the butter and sugar, and then add the eggs and orange zest. Mix the salt, baking power, ground fennel and flour and beat into the creamed butter, sugar and eggs. Pour the batter into the baking dish. It will be quite stiff, so you'll probably want to use a spatula to smooth it out a bit. Take the pear slices and lay them in lines across the entire top of the cake. Sprinkle with the brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour; this will vary with your oven so be sure to start checking for doneness after about 40 minutes.
This is an incredibly simple, old fashioned cake recipe that my Mom learned from her grandmother. With whipped cream it makes a wonderful dessert, but served plain it makes a great coffee cake, or even breakfast ;-) Enjoy! DeeDee