I saw some really nice, fennel at the farmers market recently and it reminded me of a fennel cake I’d had in London, so I went to Cheese Plus and asked if they had “Beekswell” cheese (that’s what was in my notes). Ray, the owner, said they had Berkswell, a raw milk sheep cheese from England. I figured that must be it, and bought a wedge of nearly a half-pound.
St. John Bread and Wine is Fergus Henderson’s smaller restaurant in the Spitalfields area of London (northeast). We visited last October when we also toured France and Spain. I asked the server how it was made, it seemed so simple. She consulted the kitchen and advised that, “it is sliced fennel, layered with Beekswell goat cheese and baked. To finish, the top was spread with a mixture of milk and cheese and broiled for 2 or 3 minutes to brown.”
They served the cake with pickled walnuts. (After making my cake, I learned that Cheese Plus sells Pickled Walnuts in a can.)
Now I had to figure out how to prepare the fennel and put the whole thing together. I consulted Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables and found a recipe for Fennel Gratin, made with fennel, leeks, lots of butter and cream and stock. I lifted the fennel part:
Remove the tough outer layers of the fennel bulbs, split the bulbs lengthwise, and cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices.
Melt one tablespoon of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel slices and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a bowl.
I tasted the fennel and it seemed just right, with a nice bite.
She baked the dish at 375°F.
That’s the guidance I needed.
I prepared the fennel and grated the cheese on a box grater. I had 170 grams of cheese and reserved 60 grams to mix with milk for the top.
I layered the fennel and cheese in 3 layers in a casserole dish and added 120 ml of chicken broth, not enough to cover. I put that in the countertop oven at 375° for 15 minutes. It looked right and I tasted a piece of fennel. Good, tender.
Meanwhile, I heated some milk in a small saucepan and stirred in the cheese. I added more milk until I felt the consistency was right, spread it over the fennel dish and put it under the broiler for 4 minutes until it was light brown and bubbly.
Looked good. Served it with a pan fried New York strip steak. Tasted as good as it looked and as I remembered, but it wasn’t as firm and cake-like as the one I had at St. John. Next time – and there will be a next time – I’ll use less liquid.
Fennel and Berkswell Cake
Preheat the oven to 375°F
4 bulbs young fennel
6 ounces (170 grams) Berkswell cheese, grated, divided
4 ounces (120 ml) chicken stock
Remove the tough outer layers of the fennel bulbs, cut the bulbs in half, lengthwise, and cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.
Melt one tablespoon of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel slices and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a bowl. Taste the fennel for seasoning and doneness.
Grate the cheese on a box grater. Reserve 2 ounces (60 grams) for the milk mixture.
Make a layer of fennel in an oven proof casserole dish, and add a layer of cheese. Repeat twice, making 3 layers in all.
Put the dish in the oven for 15 minutes and taste for doneness.
Heat about 1/4 cup of milk in a small saucepan and stir in the cheese. Add more milk until the consistency is right to spread the mixture over the fennel. Put it under the broiler for about 4 minutes, until it is light brown and bubbly. Let sit for at least five minutes to firm up.
A note on measurements:
When I’m working on a recipe, I like to use metric measurements. For dry ingredients, they’re much easier to read on my kitchen scale. For liquid, all measuring cups have metric as well as ounces. I also like to use weight rather than volume for dry measure, except for small amounts such as teaspoons or tablespoons.