When I was recently served a salad speckled with slices of fresh fennel, I was reminded of how much I love it. The crunchy white herb was aromatic and mildly sweet, with a whisper of licorice flavor. Before I knew it, I was recalling all the ways I’ve seen fennel: its bulbs thinly sliced on gourmet pizza, its stalks served like celery on a veggie tray, its seeds served to cleanse the palate after dinner at an Indian restaurant.
But there was a gaping hole in the dessert department, and I couldn’t understand why. Delicately herbal and pleasantly mild, fennel’s fresh form was an excellent candidate for something sweet. Soon I paired it with lots of lemon and made some of the most tender, airy cupcakes I’ve ever eaten. With its bulb in the batter and its wispy leaves in the icing, fresh fennel had found its sweet spot in my kitchen.
Lemony fennel cupcakes
(makes one dozen standard size cupcakes)
FOR THE CUPCAKES:
- 1-2 lemons, preferably Meyer
- 1 medium bulb fresh fennel with stalks and leaves (weighing about 10-12 ounces)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 medium/large eggs
- ½ cup unsalted butter, melted but not scalding hot
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line muffin pan with cupcake liners. Finely zest one lemon; set zest aside. Juice the lemon; strain and measure out 1/4 cup juice; you may need a second lemon to get this amount of strained juice. Cut the bulb from the fennel stalks; set aside stalks for the frosting. Rinse and dry the fennel bulb, then thinly slice off the hard, dark ring from its bottom; discard the slice. Applying firm pressure, grate the bulb with a sturdy standard sized (large hole) grater. Measure out 1 cup moderately packed grated fennel bulb, weighing about 4.5 ounces. Quickly place grated bulb in a small bowl and pour the measured lemon juice over it. This will prevent the fennel from turning brown while you make the batter.
In a large bowl, beat the sugar, eggs, and melted butter well, until pale and smooth. Mix in the vanilla. Sift the flour and baking soda over the butter mixture. Mix, scraping sides of bowl often, until batter is even in consistency. Finally, add the lemon-soaked fennel to the batter, and fold in the lemon zest. Mix until evenly incorporated. Scoop batter into prepared muffin tin, filling cups 1/2 to 2/3 full. Bake for about 15 minutes (begin checking at the 12 minute mark). Cupcakes are ready when their tops are toasty and golden, no longer wet, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out batter-free.
Remove pan from oven and let cupcakes sit for just a few minutes in the pan, then carefully transfer them to a cooling rack or a towel on your counter top. They will still be quite warm; I suggest using a large spoon to help move them. This step will help prevent oily condensation on the bottom of the cooled cupcakes. Let cupcakes cool completely on the rack or counter, until they are not at all warm to the touch, before frosting them.
FOR THE FROSTING:
- stalks of fennel with plenty of leaves
- 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- 1/3 cup butter at room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or the seeds scraped from half of a medium sized vanilla bean pod
- 1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if butter is salted)
- 1.25 cups powdered sugar
Rinse and dry the fennel stalks, then snip the feathery leaves off the ends. (Use any thicker, leafless stalks as you wish; they won’t be part of this recipe.) Very finely mince the wispy fennel leaves until you have 1.5 teaspoons, loosely packed. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth and even. Mix in the vanilla bean until evenly incorporated. Sift the powdered sugar and salt over the mixture, then beat, stopping to scrape bowl often. Keep whipping for several minutes to allow frosting to get fluffy. Finally, fold in in the minced fennel fronds with a spoon or spatula, stirring gently until evenly distributed. Refrigerate until ready to use. Pipe or spread frosting onto the cooled cupcakes. Devour immediately, or keep refrigerated and eat within 24 hours.
Lemony fennel cupcakes offer a burst of citrus and a perfect touch of the fragrant herb within. Aromatic, light and airy, their exquisite essence is as refreshing as it is satisfying. While the delicate flavor of fennel is subtle in the finished dessert, its texture proves to create a deliciously tender cake. Longtime fennel lovers may now celebrate with sweets, while opponents of fennel may well be transformed upon first bite.
Moriah VanVleet is the voice behind butter, sugar, flowers where this post first appeared.
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