I am finding that the recipe development process starts with some ingredient or combination of ingredients entering my subconscious and sitting with me for some time. Eventually the full recipe will evolve after batting around ideas that may or may not translate into something tasty.

I had cherries and chocolate on the brain for a couple of weeks now. At some point fennel entered the picture, but I don’t recall when or why. I work across the street from the San Francisco Ferry Building which is fantastic place for seeking gastronomic inspiration. I purchased some dried, unsulphered, unsweetened cherries from Capay Organic, everything else I had in stock. I got ever so slightly experimental by soaking half the cherries in brandy overnight and left the other half alone.

I took this recipe recently posted on Flickr by MarionQuaggatuggu. I divided the batter in half and folded in drained and chopped brandy-soaked cherries for an adult version and folded in chopped plain cherries and Valrhona chunks for a kid-friendly version. The result was more than I could hope for – rich, moist, dense, but flakey cake with a deep chocolate flavor and the occasional texture variation and kick from the brandy-soaked cherries. I preferred the brandy version personally.

For the fennel cream cheese frosting, I decided to make a syrup to add to my standard cream cheese frosting recipe. I used just a couple tablespoons of sugar and water with a teaspoon of fennel that I crushed slightly with a mortar and pestle. I boiled the mixture down until it was very syrupy and added the whole thing to the frosting. The syrup was delicious and the frosting was fantastic. I loved the overall flavor combination of the cake and frosting and consider this a keeper.

Cherry Chocolate Cupcakes
14 regular cupcakes / 350 degree oven

1-1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup flour
3.6 ounces dark chocolate, 1/2 of a 200 gram bar of Valrhona 61% cocao
15 tablespoons butter
4 eggs
3 tablespoons cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup dried cherries

1. Chop cherries and transfer to a small bowl. Cover in brandy and set aside to plump overnight.
2. Melt chocolate and butter over a water bath
3. add sugar and stir, let mixture cool for 10 minutes
4. Beat in an electric mixer for 3 minutes
5. Add one egg at a time, mixing for 30 seconds between each
6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and a pinch of salt into the mixture and mix until blended
7. Fold in cherries drained of the brandy
8. Scoop into cupcake cups and bake at 350 F for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean

baked cupcake

Fennel Cream Cheese Frosting

2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
12 ounces or 1-1/2 packages of Philly cream cheese
1/2 stick butter
3 cups sifted powdered sugar

1. Bring cheese and butter to room temperature by letting it sit out for 1 or 2 hours
2. Heat sugar and water in a small pan under medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved
3. Crush fennel seeds slightly with a mortar and pestle or with the back of a heavy pan on a cutting board
4. Add seeds to the sugar and let boil over medium-low heat for 3 to 5 minutes or until the mixture is syrupy. Set aside to cool.
5. Sift powdered sugar into a bowl or onto parchment
6. Beat butter and cheese at medium speed until creamy
7. Add half of the sugar and the fennel syrup. Beat until combined
8. Gradually add remaining sugar (more if you have to) until you get to the consistency and sweetness you like

Note: I had a lot of frosting left over. Recommended uses include serving alongside sliced fruit (I had it with papaya and banana) or french toast. It can also be frozen for future use (use within a month or so). I store it in a freezer bag and when ready, transfer the bag to the refrigerator to thaw.

fennel seeds, cherries, & chocolate

1. Top cooled cupcakes with frosting.
2. Decorate as you wish. I topped the cupcakes with a pastillage star.

I got this basic pastillage recipe from the internet. I was looking for something that didn’t have any special ingredients like gumtex or glucose. I wasn’t up for a ride to the cake supply store. I found this pastillage difficult to work with. I couldn’t get it very thin (I think partly because it was slightly sticky) and a lot of my shapes cracked when I went to remove them. The recipe makes plenty though, so I had enough shapes that worked out alright and still have two balls left over.


1 package gelatin
2 ounces cold water
1 pound powdered sugar
2 ounces cornstarch
0.02 ounce cream of tarter
gel food coloring

1. Stir gelatin into the water. Let stand 5 minutes, then heat until the gelatin is dissolved.
2. Sift together the sugar, starch, and cream of tartar.
3. Place the gelatin and the water mixture in a bowl. Add part of the sugar mixture and stir with a spoon until it is absorbed. Add food coloring and continue stirring.
4. Add remaining sugar in stages, stirring to combine.
5. Hand knead mixture to a smooth, pliable paste. This stage takes a while, can be messy (I kept it in a large bowl), and may require some splashes of cool water to bring the mixture together. Add water slowly or the result may be too sticky. If that happens, add a bit more powdered sugar.
6. Divide paste into three balls. Wrap two of them very well with plastic wrap. Pastillage must be kept covered as it dries quickly.
7. Roll out one ball at a time, using cornstarch to prevent sticking. Cut out shapes with cookies cutters or whatever you have. Dried them on parchment. Delicate designs will likely crack when you go to remove them from the parchment. The simpler, the better.

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