Sweet Fennel

Fennel desserts are taking over the world.

More and more often, lately, I’ve been seeing recipes for cakes with chopped fennel, fruit salad with fennel fronds, or plain (if you can call it that) candied fennel. Cakes flavored with fennel seeds are quite traditional in some parts of the world, but using fennel bulb in desserts seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. (At least, it is within my relatively circumscribed reading experience. I don’t actually know what I’m talking about). Already feeling dangerously uninspired by the fruits of winter (supermarket apples! They only taste of sweet or sour! Nothing in between! And certainly not in combination!), I decided to take a cue from a recipe I’d seen in a forgotten cookbook, and add fennel to an apple-rhubarb crisp.

As mentioned, it was a forgotten cookbook, meaning that had I no recipe, just the title: “Rhubarb-Apple-Fennel Crisp, with Nutmeg and Star Anise.” But it turned out that I had no star anise. Also, I had no ingredients for the top layer–the part that makes a crisp actually crisp. I was bereft of staples.

I suppose it would have made sense to stop there, at the discovery that I lacked most of the ingredients necessary for the creation of this dish that I didn’t know the formulation for anyway. I had, however, become rather set on the idea of the combination of fruits/vegetables (rhubarb is a vegetable, after all), so I decided to throw everything I had together and see what happened.

I salvaged two lumpy, bruised and ugly Winesap seconds left from Saturday’s farmer’s marke trip, and chopped them into 1-inch pieces, unpeeled. I did the same to a bulb of fennel equal in size to a single apple. I dug out one of my bags of frozen rhubarb (indecently pink, and about a pound in total weight), and dumped it into the big bowl where the apples and fennel already lay. I sweetened them slightly (I don’t like my rhubarb too sweet), then sweetened them a bit more (help! fennel! how much do I sweeten it?!), and grated over an absolutely ungodly amount of fresh nutmeg. I tipped the whole mixture into a greased 9*13 pan, covered it with foil, and put it into the oven.

Unfortunately, I forgot about it. I’d meant to leave it in for 30 minutes, but somehow left it in for 60. When I pulled it out, the ingredients were definitely cooked–they were all the way to mushy, and had released copious amounts of liquid. The rhubarb, in particular, had disintegrated into (delicious) pink threads. I threw up my hands, but I didn’t give up.

Instead of leaving the mixture in the pan, as I’d planned to, I ladled it out into small ramekins, giving each section a gentle stir as I did so. The agitation of stirring and transfer merged all of the ingredients into a kind of chunky rhubarb-fennel-applesauce, with a rough texture and pale pinkish color. I covered the ramekins and put them into the fridge to cool down.

And how did it taste? Surprisingly excellent. The apples and the rhubarb went together very well, as was expected, but the fennel wasn’t just a strange addition–it made the dish better. The fennel had become sweet, as braised fennel–and this was essentially braised–usually does, and it made both the tangy Winesaps and the sour rhubarb taste sweeter. Additionally, it added an unsurprising whiff of anise flavor in the background, just enough to be tantalizing, but not enough to be unpalatable to the licorice-haters of the world.

It was different, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Excellent! I happen to have both fennel and apples wasting away in my fridge, so I think I will attempt something similar in the near future. Thanks!

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