A number of my friends are graduating from college soon and I’m getting all verklempt and nostalgic about it. I still catch myself missing a lot of the senior-in-college lifestyle: having that handful of friends that you were inseparable from; becoming exposed to and excited about topics through seasoned, equally excited professionals; drinking when you weren’t working at a blooming establishment you take pride in; and, most of all, everyone you encounter is working toward success with your happiness in mind. Here I am, now—nearly a year later. How is my life different than it was a year ago? I can count on one hand how many friends I can physically hang out with and even less those whom I consistently see; I’ve lost some focus on topics pertinent to my degree concentrations but I’m teaching myself other skills and talents, like drawing or speaking Tagalog; I’ve had a little over a quart of beer in the passed 2 weeks and just started a job at a company I’ve been in love with since my freshman year; and the only person who is working toward success with my happiness in mind is me (and MVB).
I was worried that maybe I would plateau after college and disappoint not only myself but everyone around me. I fear it and that is what drives me. I may not be tasting and selling wine or ensuring an amazing guest experience in a fine dining restaurant, but I’m still exploring the world around me, learning as much as I can, and doing it all for myself.
To the naysayers who warn you that life after college is about working like a dog and not having fun if it means being successful, I say you can have your cake and eat it too—all you have to do is make it yourself. Figuratively, that’s the hardest part. But literally, that’s the easiest part! I never thought that I, a culinary student, could develop a cake recipe for Orange and Fennel Upside-Down Cake that my best friend, a baking & pastry student, would highly approve. Something special happens when you pair the clean flavors of orange with fragrant fennel and cardamom. What I enjoy the most about this dish is the crunchy, crumbling crust the combination of cornmeal and caramel create in my cast iron (whoa, alliteration). If you seasoned your pan like I asked you to, this dish will be a piece of cake, literally and figuratively.
Orange and Fennel Upside-Down Cake
Make 1 10-inch cake, serves 6-8
For candied fennel:
- 1 small fennel bulb
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground
Trim stems off fennel and cut bulb lengthwise into enough 1/4-inch-thick slices. Set aside. In a large saucepan, combine granulated sugar, ¾ cup water, and 1 teaspoon fennel seeds to saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Arrange in one even layer and very gently simmer until tender and translucent and liquid is syrupy, about 40 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- 1 orange
- 6 candied fennel slices
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground
In your cast-iron skillet (or well-greased cake pan), melt the 2 tablespoons of butter with the brown sugar and fennel seed until moistened. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes. While waiting, slice an orange into slices, ¼-inch thick (cut off the rind, if you so desire). Using a rubber spatula, pat down brown sugar mixture to create an even layer. Arrange the orange and fennel slices in the skillet in a decorative pattern. Set aside.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cardamom
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
In a small bowl, sift flour, cornmeal, cardamom, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar until sugar is completely incorporated. Add egg yolks 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in half of the dry ingredients, then stir in the milk, vanilla and orange zest. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients until just combined.
Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in large bowl until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and beat until stiff but not dry. Fold, or incorporate a lighter ingredient (1/3 of egg whites) into a heavier ingredient (the batter) to lighten, then fold in remaining egg whites in 2 additions.
Spoon the batter over the orange and fennel slices. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed. If you are cooking in cast iron, remove cake after 30 minutes of baking and turn cake over onto platter soon after removing it from the oven (cast iron retains heat and can overcook your cake). Drizzle fennel syrup on top. Cut into slices and serve warm or at room temperature.