Candied-Fennel-Topped Lemon Cake
['1 small fennel bulb', '3/4 cup sugar', '3/4 cup water', '3 (3-inch) strips lemon zest, thinly sliced', '1 teaspoon fennel seeds', '1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour', '1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder', '1 teaspoon baking soda', '1/2 teaspoon salt', '1 stick unsalted butter, softened', '3/4 cup sugar', '2 large eggs', '1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest', '3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk', 'Equipment: a 9-by 2-inch round cake pan; an adjustable-blade slicer', 'Accompaniment: lightly sweetened whipped cream']
Lightly oil pan and line bottom and side with a large round of wax paper, pleating sides and trimming to fit. Lightly oil paper. Line side with a 2-inch-wide strip of wax paper long enough to wrap around inside of pan to cover pleats, then lightly oil.
Cut fennel bulb lengthwise with slicer into enough 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 9) to cover bottom of cake pan.
Cover fennel with cold water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Drain fennel and set aside. Add sugar, water (3/4 cup), zest, and fennel seeds to saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add fennel slices and very gently simmer until tender and translucent and liquid is syrupy, about 40 minutes. Lift fennel slices out with a fork and arrange decoratively in bottom of cake pan. If you have more than 1/3 cup syrup, boil to reduce; if less, add water. Cool syrup slightly, then pour (through a fine-mesh sieve if desired) over fennel.
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in zest.
At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and mixing until just combined. Gently spoon batter over topping, spreading evenly.
Bake until cake is golden-brown and a wooden pick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan 15 minutes, then invert onto a plate and continue to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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