Fennel & Almond Cake

Much of our Zen practice is to see through our conditioned patterns; the patterns that tie us up in knots and confuse us; the conditioning that prevents us from being free. There are all kinds of conditioning that make us who we are and a very fascinating one is our cultural conditioning. We hardly realize how much influence it has on us, until we see it.

One interesting way to see our cultural conditioning is to go abroad for a few months – and then come back.

My memories of growing up in the UK  are of “elevenses”  – the golden moment that broke the monotony of the late morning with a welcome brew, usually to the refrain of “put kettle on, will yer?”

When we lived at The Zen Center in Salt Lake City, we would drink coffee at random times of the day. It really didn’t matter if you were sitting, standing, driving, inside coffee shops, outside coffee shops, walking down the street, or waiting for a bus. Wherever one went, the insulated no-spills coffee cup would come with. When I first moved to the Netherlands with my husband before we began Zen River, coffee break felt almost religious. It was as if the entire country might come to an utter standstill at ten-thirty in the morning as everyone stopped and sat down for a “Koffie Pauze”And during our time in Japan, we’d be summoned to the table by the sound of wooden clappers for a tiny tea break and sip small cups of fresh green tea served with paper-wrapped mochi (cake).

One springtime in the mid nineties, someone from The Netherlands was visiting The Zen Center. At ten-thirty on the dot each day, they would stop working, make a pot of coffee, put it with a cookie on a tray, carry it outside, sit down in one of the garden chairs, and take a twenty minutes coffee break. I recall my American friends were quite mystified by this as they went about their business with their insulated mugs in hand.

I have to confess that at Zen River, we follow the Dutch tradition of stopping everything and sitting down for coffee breaks – and it’s hardly ever without cake or cookies. A key part of the morning duties of the Tenzo is, besides breakfast, to bake some sort of cake. There really isn’t that much time to make anything too fancy, in fact most of the cakes I bake are rather straightforward. Fennel & Almond Cake is a good example. It sounds and tastes quite elegant and is in fact, very simple to prepare.

This cake can be enjoyed with whatever form of coffee break you might take!

Fennel & Almond Cake
Fennel & Almond Cake

110 g (½ cup) white sugar
240 ml (1 cup) buttermilk
125 g (½ cup) butter, melted
2 medium eggs
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
20 g (2 tablespoons) slivered almonds
315 g (2 cups) white flour
1 tablespoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar for sprinkling on top

  • Preheat the oven to 190 °C (375 °F).
  • Line a 25 cm (10”) cake tin with a 18 cm (7”) wide sheet of parchment paper.
  • Melt the butter in a small pan.
  • In a mixing bowl, beat together the sugar and buttermilk, then whisk in the melted butter.
  • Beat in the eggs.
  • Stir in the vanilla extract, almond extract, fennel seeds, and slivered almonds.
  • In a clean bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  • Using a large, shallow metal spoon or firm spatula, reach into the bottom of the mixing bowl and cut and fold the flour into the wet ingredients until just combined. Turn the bowl after each fold so that the ingredients are evenly distributed. Alternatively, beat for a few seconds with an electric beater on low speed, and finish with a few folds using a spatula, reaching to the bottom of the bowl. Drop the batter into the cake tin. If needed, use the tips of a fork to spread the surface of the batter evenly across the cake tin.
  • Sprinkle the top of the batter with a tablespoon of sugar in an even layer.
  • Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the edges pull away from the sides of the tin. Remove from the oven. Rest for a minute before turning out onto a cooling rack.

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