pear, fennel and rosemary cake: a learning experience

So it’s been a few months. What has happened in between is summarized quite well by this cake: not much, and not much super delicious either. Though, while an underwhelming cake, this was a fairly productive learning experience.

There is a tendency for me to lean towards the richer and heavier cakes. I’ve internalized a caricature of genoise and biscuits as dry and tough, and consequently have also developed a slight prejudice against all butter-less cakes (though with a notable exception).And so when wanting to making a dense, fruit-laden cake, I automatically turned to the hegemonically-endorsed basic butter cake (and the easily recalled 1:1:1:1 ratio of the Victoria sponge). And here is what happened: the cake eventually baked, but remained fairly stodgy. The batter around the fruit was a bit underbaked and overly moist. The fruit itself was heavy and wet and did little to complement the cake. It was not terrible nor inedible, but it also wasn’t particularly good.

I compared this result to what I’ve witnessed previously with unenriched cakes, such as this sharlotka. Here, moist fruit makes sense. It provides moisture to an otherwise dry cake. There is a textural contrast between the spongy cake and the dense fruit. And the cake around the fruit may remain a little underbaked as well, but somehow it is not nearly as distressing as the underbaked regions of the butter cake.

Somehow it took this cake and a bit of reflection to realize that perhaps the butter cake is not always the go-to.

The fennel is very inconsequential. I did not use too much and it is unnoticeably subtle, overshadowed completely by everything else. I’ve been thinking an upside down caramelized fennel and lemon cake would be the next step in order to make better use of the taste.This cake was very much intended to be an adventure cake (adventure, used loosely, to also encompass some leisurely reading). The few requirements were 1. warm sorts of flavour and 2. a degree of practicality and sufficient structure to be cut into pieces and wrapped in paper, in half-nostalgia and half-pandering to a certain quaint and picnic-y aesthetic.

Narnia was one of the first longer novels and series that I read as a child, and it formed the blueprint for the type of stories I continued to enjoy and seek out: adventures, not mysteries or romances or school dramas, but the sort of adventures that involve magic and hopefully chatty anthropomorphized animals.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader was my favourite, likely due to the heavy roles of Lucy and Edmund, whom I found so much more engaging and relatable than the distant and only mildly-fleshed out Peter and Susan, and then there was Eustace who becomes rather loveable after undergoing his own character development arc. After that, I found the novels to be lonelier, threaded together by a gradual darkness and decline, culminating in The Last Battle. This may have been as vaguely optimistic and satisfying an end as one could find, but at the time I only found it distressing and sombre. I wanted an Oz-type continuity, which let Dorothy live with her aunt and uncle in Oz forever, but importantly was devoid of supposed endings, conclusions and finality.Now I’ve come to appreciate a good ending here or there. I realized this as series continue to get longer (L Frank Baum was only the beginning). Series, or sets of series, I began reading in school are still ongoing now–things like the character-packed monstrosity that is Warriors (Erin Hunter) and the slightly insipid but funny Cassandra Clare novels. I think I continue seeing mythology-inspired new Rick Riordan works when I pass by the teen sections of bookstores as well.

An ending allows you to glance back and appreciate the series as a whole, rather than always catching up with the next instalment. Perhaps most importantly you can then discover something else. And so when I chanced upon Wildwood by Colin Meloy–of the Decemberists–in a bookstore, at that point unfortunately already well into my teens, I read it thinking how it was exactly what I would have loved when I was younger. An adventure, replete with well-dressed animals and mysterious forests, gender parity of the main characters who are quirky and likeable, and! an ending. It’s a trilogy that stops right there.pear, fennel and rosemary cake

Based on the ratios of a Victoria sponge cake. 

60 g fennel

olive oil

114 g softened butter (1/4 lb)

50 g granulated sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 small sprigs rosemary, leaves picked and finely minced

50 g dark rye flour

70 g whole wheat flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

60 mL (1/4 cup) milk

2 pears

Preheat oven to 375F. Thinly slice the fennel into small pieces, toss with a bit of olive oil, and place in the oven for around 20-30 minutes while it warms up until the fennel is softened. Set aside to cool.

Line a 8″ square pan with a parchment paper sling. Lightly butter the exposed surfaces of the pan.

Cream the butter and the sugar until light with a wooden spoon. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Mix in the vanilla extract and rosemary.

In a separate bowl, combine the flours, salt, and baking powder.

Slice one of the pears into 4 sagittal slices, reserving the inner two slices (the slices of pear on the cake as pictured above) for topping the cake. Chop the remaining pear and the remainder of the sliced pear into large chunks.

Add half the flour mixture to the butter, mixing until just combined with a wooden spoon. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Lastly, fold in the chunks of pear and slices of roasted fennel. Spread into the prepared pan and place the two reserved pear slices on top.

Bake for around 25-30 minutes or until an inserted skewer is removed clean. Let cool on a wire rack and serve with tea.