Imagine that you are at Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore, or the county fair, or a street carnival that the local Catholic church throws to celebrate their Saint’s day. You can smell fennel sausage on the grill, but you are looking at the funnel cakes. You are imagining how delicious the pile of fried dough buried in confectioners sugar must be. But the fantasy induced by the smell of fennel and the sight of so much powdered sugar vanishes the second you bite into the heavy, greasy dough.
Imagine that you are sitting in a sun drenched cafe with well dressed old regulars sipping espresso at their table. Maybe you are in Astoria, Queens or maybe you are in Italy or Greece. You are enjoying the smell and flavour of an almond biscotti with a hint of anise. Your jaw is sore from gnawing on the delicious treat and you order two extra espresso, even though you have already had enough caffeine, just for the purpose of softening the biscuit.
Imagine that you are in your favourite chinese restaurant. For me, this takes me away from NYC and back to Vancouver. The restaurant looks like an old diner and says Canadian Chinese Food on an inauspicious sign outside, but the round tables are always packed with Chinese families eating piles of delicious fresh plates of noodles and greens and barbeque meat. The windows are steamed up, and the entire room smells like ginger and scallions and star anise. You are full and content and there is a fourtune cookie resting on top of your impossibly small bill. You like the taste and crunch of the fourtune cookie, but you find yourself wishing that it was just the crust on a delicious, light, fluffy cake rather than a container for an obtuse fourtune.
This cake evokes these happy situations, and also answers their shortcomings. It has an anise scent, an almond flavour and crunch and a generous dusting of powdered sugar. The cake itself is tender and light but it has a crackly sugar crust that reminds me of a good fourtune cookie.
Pack this cake for a picnic to the beach or the county fair so that you can have a good desert instead of being tempted by cotton candy. Sit in the sunshine on your stoop, or back porch with a pot of strong home-brewed coffee and share this cake with your dapper elderly neighbor. Serve this cake for dessert when you make Chinese food for a dinner party.
It is easy to make (especially with an electric mixer or standing mixer). You’ll need 8 egg whites. I tend to accumulate a lot of egg whites because I use the yolks to make mayonnaise. I add them to a container in the freezer and when I get a full cup I throw them and make cake! The egg whites will fluff up better if you let them come to room temperature before you whip them. If you don’t have ground fennel or fennel pollen, you can use anise seed instead. I suppose that star anise could work too, if you ground it up into a fine powder. I used fennel seeds processed until fine in a coffee grinder.
If you are not gluten-free replace the rice flour, tapioca starch, and arrowroot starch with 1 cup total all-purpose wheat flour
- 10 tablespoons butter, plus extra for buttering the tin
- 1 cup almond flour (or 4 oz of blanched almonds)
- 1 and 1/2 cups sugar, divided in half
- 1/2 cup brown rice flour
- 1/4 cup tapioca starch
- 1/4 cup arrowroot starch
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground fennel (depending on how much you like fennel)
- the zest of 1/2 to 1 lemon (depending on how much you like lemon zest)
- 8 room temperature egg whites (about 1 cup)
- a pinch of salt
- 2/3 cup sliced almonds
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar to sprinkle on top
- 1/4 tsp fennel pollen to sprinkle on top (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 or 10 inch round springform cake tin. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper too (don’t skip this).
- Melt the butter, remove it from the heat. Set it aside to cool
- If you are using whole blanched almonds, combine them with 3/4 cup sugar in a food processor or blender and pulse until the nuts are finely ground and then combine the nut and sugar mixture with the brown rice flour, tapioca starch, arrowroot in a large bowl. If you are using almond flour, combine it with 3/4 cup sugar brown rice flour, tapioca starch, arrowroot in a large bowl.
- In another clean large bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 3/4 cup sugar in a steady stream, beating until the mixture forms soft peaks again.
- Starting with the dry mixture and ending with the melted, cooled butter, alternately fold the dry mix and the melted butter into the egg whites, one-third at a time.
- Pour the batter into the prepared tin, top it with the sliced almonds and bake for 50 minutes.
- Let the cake cool for 5 minutes before unmolding it. Sift the powdered sugar and fennel pollen (if using) over the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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