There are two types of people in this world. No, I know people have said this a lot in a variety of humorous deviations (emphasis on the deviance) but I mean it this time. Because there are two types of people in this world. People who like liquorice and sad people.
Liquorice, as the most intense member of the anise flavour family, blows your socks off with a satanically sweet darkness you thought was reserved only for molasses, raw cacao and committing arson on a candy-floss factory. If you’ve never tasted liquorice before, you’re just going to have to taste it; it’s of that rare breed of flavours, along with quince and violet, which is so wholly unique that describing it in terms of other things is both futile and reductionist. Imagine crude oil but for eating and you’re not far off.
As intoxicating as liquorice is, like all sweets, it’s not something you can eat regularly. Also it has laxative properties and that’s not the most appealing thing at a dinner party. That’s why we liquorice-lovers eat it in secret, away from liquorice-haters’ sad, judgmental eyes. Fortunately, for people craving an aniseed hit without the sugar can resort to fennel which, sliced finely and eaten raw, tastes like liquorice in salad form. Being also a big fan of vegetables, this is as close to flavour nirvana as its possible for a liquorice-lover to get. Or it is until I invent chocolate-flavoured cauliflower. Watch this space.
Fennel can be stir-fried, sautéd, gratin-ed, braised, roasted, baked, souped, puréed, juiced, candied and thrown out of the window at passing seagulls but for me, my favourite way to eat fennel is simply raw, thereby preserving as much of its flavour and satisfying crunch as possible. I also realise that it’s not possible to give a recipe for eating fennel raw (wash it, slice it, chew ostentatiously because there’s no other way to chew it). So I decided to go down the extravagant route, play up the confectionery which inspired my love for fennel, and do something I’ve never done before: namely, turning fennel into a pudding. I’m candying it. This essentially amounts to boiling it in syrup. Don’t panic, it’s very easy. Not so easy that you would let a child do it, because they might lick the spoon OF BOILING SUGAR, but easy enough.
Candied fennel – it’s really simpler than the length of this recipe implies
- Quarter 1 fennel and give a quick wash behind the thick outermost leaves in case of dirt. Often fennels don’t have this problem, but better safe than muddy. Now cut each quarter in half, keeping the core on each slice intact.
- Put the fennel quarters into a small saucepan so they’re all snugly tucked in. Just cover with cold water, then measure how much this water is and make a note of it. Bring to the boil.
- Remember how you had to measure how much water you covered your fennel with? Measure out enough granulated or caster sugar to match the weight of water, i.e. 200ml water means use 200g sugar. Add in 1 tsp fennel seeds for extra liquoriceness, heat until the sugar dissolves and simmer the mixture for 18-20 minutes until the liquorice is glassily translucent and butter-soft.
- Remove the fennel quarters from the syrup and lay out on some greaseproof paper – this is by far the easiest way to ‘dry’ candied food, because the syrup drips off and is absorbed by the paper, which you then ostentatiously throw in the bin.
- Boil down the syrup until it’s the consistency of runny honey, then pour into a clean, airtight container (a jug and clingfilm will do) and put in the fridge to use in place of golden syrup when you make flapjacks tomorrow.
- Eat the candied fennel, once cool, with yoghurt and grated chocolate as an elegant pudding for two, or go one further by baking a large round of shortbread for the yogurt, fennel and chocolate to sit on. Do this by beating together 50g vegan butter and 25g sugar until light and fluffy, and then gently incorporating 75g flour (not rye) until a dough forms. Pat out on a lined baking tray to a round 1cm-thick, then bake for 15 minutes at 180ºC or 160ºC fan until pale golden. Leave to cool before transferring to a plate to load up and slice like a pavlova.
Notes: I’ve cheerily kept the syrup from step 5 for a week in the fridge, and you could equally use it in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, custard, salad dressings, acidic tomato sauces, gingerbread, cocktails – wherever there’s need for sweetening liquids or use of syrups.